The Man Who Loved Niagara Falls

Harry_Oaks

 

I had been living in Niagara Falls for only a couple of weeks when the name of Sir Harry Oakes arose in conversation. It was at a neighbourhood barbecue to which I had been invited. The name had a familiar hook to it, but I could not hang any details on it. The six or so locals gathered in the conversational circle knew the legend, and nodded with recognition at the mention of the man. I stared blankly. For my benefit, the senior gentleman who had originally raised the reference quickly filled in the details: at one time Sir Harry was considered the richest man in the British Empire. In 1924, after having moved from Kirkland Lake to Niagara Falls, Harry bought a mansion that overlooked the famous tourist attraction and commissioned upgrades to the impressive building. He loved the area, and his legacy to the community was hiding in plain sight.  And then the gentleman leading the conversation added a stunning conclusion: his murder in the Bahamas is still considered one of the great unsolved crimes of the twentieth century. Up there with the deaths of the Black Dahlia and JFK, he added.  I was suddenly intrigued by a mystery I had never heard of, and wanted to know more.

The next day I visited the local library and borrowed a couple of books detailing the millionaire’s accomplishments and the stupefying crime that took his life. As I was leaving the library I noticed a sign declaring one of the library meeting areas the Sir Harry Oakes Reading Room. It was the first of many references that I began to take note of around Niagara Falls.

IMG_1064

One of my favourite locations to sit and watch the Falls is at the foot of the busiest street in the area: Clifton Hill. It’s a tourist area packed with activity: arcades, ghost houses, wax works, a Ferris wheel, mini-golf, and numerous fast food outlets. There at the bottom of the hill is a beautiful garden that doubles as an open air performance space. It’s a peaceful retreat from the buzz and bustle of all the tourist traffic. The American Falls are right in front of you. The roar of both waterfalls (American and Canadian) fills the air. Stress, like the Falls mist, drifts and disappears into the sky. So imagine how surprised I was to discover that this tranquil sanctuary owed its very existence to the man. Millions of tourists, just like me, have walked over the stone commemorating this place, oblivious to not only its official name, the Oakes Garden Theatre, but the incredible story behind the individual that made it possible.

I then began to catalogue other Oakes references around town: Oakes Hotel, the Oakes sports field, Oakes Drive, and Oak Hall, which is now the headquarters of the Niagara Parks Commission.

2017-08-28 13.48.18

Luckily, one of my new friends in the community was connected to a senior NPC staff member and arranged a tour for me. It’s a gorgeous old mansion that Sir Harry and his Australian wife Eunice purchased when they moved here. He built a nine-hole golf course on the land out front as he was passionate about the game. Off to one side of the course was a path through the trees that led down to the Falls and the tranquil area of Dufferin Islands.  You can just imagine Sir Harry and his family and friends taking their evening stroll down this path to sit and watch the white water rush by on its way to the massive drop beside the magnificent, but now shuttered, palace of a place that turned that rushing water into hydro electric power: the Electrical Development Company.  The mansion’s path is now overgrown, but the gate posts are clearly visible through the trees and bushes.

Oakes path

Inside the mansion there were thirty-five rooms and seventeen bathrooms. Harry installed air conditioning, a swimming pool, and one of the first elevators in the British Empire. My NPC host took me up in the classic old elevator to the top of tower which affords a spectacular view of the Falls and surrounding area. I could just imagine Sir Harry and Lady Oakes gazing out on to this incredible vista before all the trees of modern times obscured the million dollar view.

2017-08-28 14.10.17

The dining room is lined with Oak panels obtained, by the previous owner, from Hampton Court Palace in London (coincidentally just two miles from my boyhood home). One of the chairs is clearly marked: here sat Prince Edward when he visited Oak Hall in 1919 (five years before Sir Harry purchased the mansion). Prince Edward would later be known as the king who gave up his throne for his love: Mrs. Wallis Simpson. His new title was the Duke of Windsor. It would be a strange coincidence as the Duke was one of the characters caught up in the spider web of murderous circumstances.

Harry Oakes was born in Maine, U.S.A. He became a gold prospector, and was used to a hard and impoverished life while he searched for his “bonanza”. He found it in Kirkland Lake, Ontario. Niagara Falls became his Canadian home. He gave generously to the community supporting various projects including the hospital, sports facilities, the boy scouts, and it was said that even during the depression men could find work with Harry. However, the Canadian government was taxing Harry’s business at an extraordinarily high rate (possibly as much as 80%).

During his travels Harry crossed paths with Harold Christie, an up and coming real estate salesman from the Bahamas. Christie told Harry about the minimal tax in the Bahamas and persuaded him to move there, which he did in 1934, while still maintaining their home in Niagara Falls. He and his wife continued their benevolence not only on the tropical island but in England. In 1939, the British monarchy honoured Harry with a Baronet and he and his wife became known as Sir Harry and Lady Oakes.

On July 8 1943 Sir Harry was found murdered in his bed in his Bahamian mansion, Westbourne. He had been, apparently, bludgeoned to death, feathers from his pillow scattered over the body, and there was an attempt to set the body on fire without success. The colourful cast of characters caught up in the web of intrigue reads like a Hollywood movie. The Duke of Windsor (The Duke, much to his chagrin, had been made a Governor of the Bahamas, a move orchestrated by the British government to steer the Duke and his wife away from Europe, as we now know, because of their Nazi sympathies, a Swedish industrialist who had business ties to the Nazis, the real estate broker Harold Christie, and Sir Harry’s son-in-law Count Alfred de Marigny (who had married Sir Harry’s daughter Nancy, without asking for permission, just two days after she turned eighteen years of age). It would be the Count who would be tried for the murder, but was eventually found not guilty after it was proven in court that the US detectives (appointed by the Duke of Windsor, who conveniently was out of the country at the time) had doctored fingerprints in order to frame the son-in-law. Conspiracy theories, to this day, abound as to what happened and why. Even the Mafia boss Meyer Lansky has been named as a possible suspect by some writers because Sir Harry apparently tried to block Casinos from opening on the island.

249251-539854

Even after his death Lady Oakes continued the family’s benevolence. The Oak mansion was used as a hospital for injured Royal Canadian Air Force pilots in the later years of the Second World War. I then recalled that my father, when he joined the R.A.F., had been shipped from England to do his training in St. Catharines, the town close to Niagara Falls, at approximately the time of the murder. I imagined the people of the Niagara region would have been constantly gossiping about the crime, and he might have heard and seen firsthand how the local residents reacted to Sir Harry’s death.  I made a mental note to ask my dad about the affair when he next telephoned from the UK care home in which he now resided.

“You were in St. Catharines in ’43 at the time of the murder?” I asked him.

“No. It was ’42,” he replied. I was momentarily disappointed. My hope of obtaining more information about the community’s reaction to the crime was a non-starter. But after a short silence my father then added “But I was posted to Nassau in the Bahamas in January 1944.”

“What? That was just a few months after the trial had concluded,” I replied surprised. “Was there a lot of talk about the trial and the murder amongst your crowd?” My research had uncovered the fact that two wives of Ferry Command pilots (my dad was part of Ferry Command) were called as witnesses at the trial.

“Not that I recall. But Sir Harry’s presence was everywhere in the Bahamas. We flew small aircraft, such as the twin engine Mitchell’s, out of Oakes airfield. It was close to Nassau. Larger aircrafts, those with four engines, used Windsor airfield which was further out. We also used to visit the British Colonial Hotel in Nassau for cocktails. It was owned by Sir Harry.”

What an incredible piece of family trivia I had just uncovered. My dad was also pleasantly surprised at my fascination with a crime that dominated the newspapers of the British Empire even when the Second World War was raging. He also loved the fact that I had now made my home in Niagara Falls. “A beautiful part of the world,” he concluded before signing off.

The descendants of Sir Harry and Lady Oakes still have significant land holdings in the area, and have benefited from Sir Harry’s foresight in acquiring property surrounding this majestic natural wonder.  But there are also significant areas of this magnificent place that he acquired on behalf of the community.

2017-08-07 07.56.17

We may never know who killed Sir Harry, but one thing is certain. His generous spirit towards Niagara Falls remains as a testament of his love for this town and the waterfall, one of the seven wonders of the world. And millions of tourists, and residents like me, benefit from that generosity to this day.

Advertisements

The Sinking of the S.S.Arctic

Loss_of_the_Steam_Ship_Arctic Currier

(Author’s note: the following story is a fiction, but the basic facts are true.)

It was the Titanic disaster of its day. Hundreds drowned. It caused a scandal in nineteenth century America. It was reported that no women or children survived. As for the men who did survive, many of them were crew members not passengers. New York society was outraged.  Hungry for details and lurid anecdotes about the disaster, the tragedy fueled one of the first newspaper wars in the city. Yet, the story of the sinking of the S.S. Arctic has been lost to the tides of time. I only discovered it by accident, and what a dark tale it was. In the process, I discovered something, and someone, that would alter the story. And my life as well.

It all started when I decided to take a break from my Toronto routine and spend a week in Manhattan. My AirBnB host had posted a list of things to do on the fridge door of the small apartment. One of the places highlighted was Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. I had never heard of it. That night I sat down at the kitchen table and searched Green-Wood on my laptop. One of the comments on TripAdvisor called it “the most beautiful cemetery in the US”.  Apparently, many famous people were buried among the half a million graves. A wonderful collection of mausoleums and marble statues was promised, as well as a peaceful walk through history along the quiet wooded paths of the four hundred acre site. So the next day I dressed comfortably, caught the subway to the 25th Street station and made my way to the cemetery’s main entrance. As I walked through the magnificent gothic arches there was a feeling of entering another world.

I was struck by how quiet and idyllic things were even though this place was in the middle of one of the busiest cities on the planet; gentle hills, plentiful trees, ponds, fountains, and countless gravestones dotted the landscape.  At the intersection of Hillock Avenue and Serpentine Path Knoll I came across an unusual spire-like monument surrounded by about seventy tombstones of what appeared to be many generations of one family. I stood there for more than a moment absorbing the somber atmosphere, and wondered about this family. Even during the gilded age it would have been a statement of prestige. I must have appeared more than vaguely moved by the visage for an old woman, who I had not seen approach, suddenly spoke.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she said.

I was slightly startled. I had not talked to anybody since my arrival. “Yes. It makes you think. One family all buried here,” I answered as I looked at her. “What’s the tall monument in the middle?”

She turned and looked at me. “It’s a memorial to those that drowned in the sinking of the S.S. Arctic. Over three hundred people were lost.”

“Really? When was that?”

“1854. September 27,” she said with authority.

“Tragic,” I replied.

“What was even more tragic was that men got to the lifeboats ahead of everyone else. Women and children first did not mean anything to them. Only one woman survived, and she drifted on a raft.”

“Ouch.” I said nothing further for a few seconds. “Why is the monument here in this family plot?”

“The family was the financial backer of the shipping company. Brown Brothers Banking. They are still in business on Wall Street. Brown Brothers Harriman.” She could see the reference meant nothing to me. “Six members of the family were lost in the sinking. James Brown, the father, channeled his grief into commissioning this monument. His favourite daughter, Millie, was one of those who died. He hoped people would not forget. But they did.” There was a pause as I absorbed this somber information. “Go on. Take a look.”

I walked up to the weather beaten memorial and gazed at the image in the middle. The marble structure had been nibbled away by the wind and rain, but in the center you could clearly see the hull of a paddle steamer sinking. I read the names of the deceased carved on the foundation’s pedestal. I thought about the horror they must have endured.  I returned to the old woman and began to ask questions.

“You a journalist?” she asked me.

“Writer,” I replied, “Canadian.”

“Oh. Newfoundland played a big part in the rescue, just like they did when all those planes were diverted there after 9/11. Research the story and you will find out all you need to know,” she responded.

“How come nobody knows about this?”

“Monuments are not like stories. People pass these things every day and see the edifice, but do not linger or look further.”

“I’m as guilty of that as everybody. I’d love to know more about the sinking.”

“Next Wednesday is the anniversary of the tragedy. We can talk then.” With that she turned and walked away. “Be here at noon.”

I continued through Green-Wood, and enjoyed the ambiance. But the story of this doomed ship occupied my thoughts. I spent the night researching on line. The following day I went to the New York Public library and found the two definitive books on the subject. They were invaluable in my research, but the books and articles all mentioned that no women or children were rescued. Was the old lady wrong? She seemed so certain.

True to her word she was at the monument the following Wednesday at the exact time she said. For days my mind had been occupied by the story. I couldn’t wait to meet her again and find out what she knew about the disaster. I also wanted to correct her on the belief that a woman survived. The books I had read were complete and exhausting in their research. Only men survived the sinking of the S.S.Arctic.

“Do you believe everything you read?” she asked when I mentioned what I had discovered. Her tone was like that of a teacher to pupil.

“No, but these writers did their homework,” I replied, sure of myself. “When they write that only men survived I believe them.”

“Well, they are wrong. I know that as a fact.” She turned away and lowered her head ignoring my intrusive nature.

I was suddenly reminded that this was a solemn occasion and I should respect her silence. We both stood there. The old lady had her eyes closed as if in prayer. I stared at the monument as if that would help release its mystery and story.

The S.S. Arctic was the pride of the Collins shipping line. Its president was Edward Collins.  With financial help from the Brown Brothers the New York based company expanded. It was officially known as the “New York and Liverpool United States Mail Steamship Company” after being granted the contract to carry US mail to the UK. It was an attempt by US politicians to break the hold of the British owned Cunard line which, up to that point, not only carried US mail but had a near stranglehold on trans-Atlantic passenger traffic. Collins built four magnificent and luxurious side-wheel steamers: Atlantic, Pacific, Baltic, and Arctic. They were almost twice the size of the Cunard ships, more luxurious, and faster, particularly the Arctic. At almost three thousand tons she dominated other ships when she docked at Liverpool harbor. With her luxurious cabins, drawing rooms, and salons she was the class of her day, and in 1852, under the guidance of her captain, James Luce, she became the fastest ship to cross the Atlantic west to east: 9 days, 17 hours, and 12 minutes. She rightly earned the title Clipper of the Sea.

The cost of a first class cabin was $125, which is about $3,500 in today’s money. The expensive ticket didn’t just give you the most luxurious surroundings of any ship that crossed the  Atlantic, but put you in the company of some of the most important and prestigious members of American and European society. The two hundred and fifty passengers on board that fateful trip included James Brown’s son and two daughters, his son in law, and two grandchildren. Also on board was the French Duke de Grammont, the English explorer and artist Frederick Catherwood (who introduced the western world to Mayan culture), the wife of the owner Edward Collins and their two teenage children, plus many members of New York’s high society. Captain Luce had also brought along his handicapped son, eleven year old Willie, for a special treat.

The ship left Liverpool September 20th 1854. Seven days later, while steaming through fog, she collided with the iron-hulled ship French vessel Vesta, fifty miles south of Cape Race, Newfoundland. Captain Luce initially thought that it was the Vesta that was in trouble rather than his own wooden hull colossus. He dispatched one of the six lifeboats to see how he could assist with what he presumed to be an imminent disaster. But he soon realized it was the Arctic that was in trouble and he steamed off as quickly as possible in the hope of reaching the shores of Newfoundland and safety. They didn’t make it. The ship started to sink. With only five lifeboats left for the approximate four hundred passengers and crew panic set in. The crew, who were among the highest paid and most experienced on American ships, secured their places on the small boats before the passengers. The Arctic sank quickly. Two of the lifeboats made it to Broad Cove, Newfoundland where they were looked after by the local inhabitants.  Some individuals were saved by passing ships. Some survived, such as Captain Luce, on the debris of the paddle steamer. One lucky man survived by taking refuge in a basket on top of a makeshift raft. Due to the limited communication available at the time it took two weeks for the news to reach New York. Once all the details were known there was public outrage. Over three hundred had drowned. They included the six members of the Brown family, Mrs. Collins and her two children, Captain Luce’s son Willie, Frederick Catherwood, and many members of New York society.  Eighty five survived: sixty one crew and twenty four male passengers. New York society was outraged at the cowardly behavior of the crew as well as saddened by the death of so many of their friends. The city’s business elite entered an extended period of mourning. Citizens were anxious for any news of the sinking and the Herald Tribune and The New York Times were dominated by updates. It was so intense that it resulted in one of the first news “wars” in an effort to scoop the competitor. There were all kinds of side-bar stories. A Shakespeare first folio, being shipped back to New York by collector Aldon Griswold, was lost. Diamonds, to the value of $150,000 (over $4 million in today’s money), was supposedly being carried by one passenger who drowned with his wealth. In the wake of the tragedy shipping rules were changed, but only slightly. The maritime law of having enough lifeboats to accommodate all ship’s passengers was not put in place for over fifty years, after another great tragedy: that of the Titanic. For years the belief that no woman survived the disaster was repeated in books and articles about the tragedy. But, as I was soon to find out, that was not correct.

After a moment of silence the old woman opened her eyes. “Come with me.” She turned around and began a slow walk towards the cemetery exit. I followed.

“What’s your name?” I asked as I quickly came alongside.

“You can call me Julia,” she replied as she hobbled along the path. “And yours?”

“Tom,” I answered. “Nice to meet you, Julia. Where are we going?”

“To my apartment for tea.”

“Can I ask are you connected to the Brown family?”

“Enough questions. All in due time.”

We caught a taxi to her modest Brooklyn apartment. A rickety elevator took us to the third floor. Her home was a musty one bedroom place that overlooked the street. “I can amuse myself by watching the people pass by,” she said as I pulled back the net curtain and looked out. “Make yourself comfortable,” she added as she disappeared into her bedroom. She returned with a scrap book and opened it to a particular page.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Read it,” she said as she pointed to a news cutting taped to the page. “I’ll put the kettle on.”

The clipping was from a small town newspaper dated January 24 1919. It recorded the passing of local resident Mary Green at eighty-five years of age. Not only did the obituary list all that she had done for the local community of Forestburgh, New York as the wife of a prominent man, teacher at the local primary school, and all-round energetic individual, but it mentioned her story as a survivor of the S.S.Arctic. According to the news story she had been an English immigrant who followed her sweetheart to the new world. He drowned, but she survived by clinging to wreckage until she was picked up by a passing ship. Once in New York “the distinguished families entertained and feted her” and “got her a job and going with the family in which she was employed”. This was extraordinary. None of the books on the maritime tragedy mentioned this fact.

“How do you take your tea?” Julia called from the kitchen. “Milk and sugar?”

“Yes. That’s good,” I replied.

Julia returned with two mugs, and placed mine on the old wooden coffee table in front of the couch where I was seated. She took her place in the armchair by the side.

I asked “Who was Mary Green?”

“My great grandmother.”

“But why has nobody reported or corrected the books on the sinking of the ship and her survival?”

“It’s so long ago. Nobody cares. Who has ever even heard of the S.S. Arctic? Had you till this week?”

I had to agree with her. But it seemed an injustice. The next hour we chatted about her family and the general state of the world. Julia wanted to know about my work and life in Canada. There was not too much to tell. Just a struggling writer, I told her. I asked about her background and she gave me the details of a life full of ups and downs. She never married and the rest of her siblings had since passed. Nothing remarkable in her ninety years, she said, except this story of her great grandmother passed down through the generations. I could tell she enjoyed the company. As I went to leave she asked for my business card and I left it on the coffee table. I returned to Toronto a few days later. The memory of Julia stayed for a week or two, but was forgotten when I was offered a publishing contract for my second book on pop culture. I was more than thrilled for the new deal and concentrated on finishing the work. The S.S. Arctic sunk to the bottom of my creative imagination.

A year later I received an over-sized business envelope. Inside was a typed letter from a Monticello lawyer, and, encased in plastic protective sheeting, were two ancient looking handwritten pages.  The legal letter informed me that Julia had died, but she had left instructions that the pages enclosed with this letter were to be sent to me. I was taken aback by this sudden recollection of meeting this woman. I sat down at my desk and withdrew the papers from their protective covering. Atop the first page was the name Mary Green. The date: September 27 1904.  The beautiful black ink handwriting stated that “here on the fiftieth anniversary of the sinking of the S.S.Arctic, I, Mary Green, want to make an accurate account of my experience and survival of that tragedy.” And this is what she wrote:

It was September 1854. I was Mary Delaney then, engaged to my sweetheart Alexander Cooper. We were both twenty. He was from a distinguished family in Sullivan County, New York. His father had been a general and was now a judge. Alex, as he liked to be addressed, had been sent to England to finish his education. I had been studying to be a teacher at the college of Preceptors in Bloomsbury Square. Our paths crossed one day, completely by accident, at the nearby British Museum at the celebrations for the opening the institutions new forecourt. It was as if the goddess Moira herself had a hand in our fated meeting. Alex was impressed that I, a woman, was training to be a teacher. I was impressed with his manners, his education, and his standing in life. He told me about “the new world”: America. I was entranced. We conversed for hours as we wandered around the museum paying little heed to the astounding exhibits. Soon we were seeing more of each other, and before long he asked me to marry him and travel to New York. London was a dreadful place to be at the time. There was the cholera epidemic. Thousands had died. Soldiers were leaving everyday for war in the Crimea and the war with Russia. With my parents blessing, I agreed. That September he booked two first class tickets for us on the S.S. Arctic, the grandest ship of its time. We traveled by rail to Liverpool. The docks were crowded with ships from all corners of the Empire. Gypsies and barrow boys lined the wharfs selling their wares to those who came and went along the busy waterfront. We located the beautiful Arctic tied up at the new Huskisson dock on the north side. It looked impressive with its huge paddle wheel, tall masts, and chimney. It was bigger than any other ship in the harbor. We were able to accommodate ourselves in our luxury individual quarters a day before she sailed. This gave us the opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the ship and its many splendid amenities. We even had the new invention of radiators in our state rooms. That was a novelty, and a welcome addition. The following day we steamed out of Liverpool and away from England. I never saw my homeland again. The journey was a delight. We met the Browns. Their father had financed the building of the ship. Captain Luce entertained us with his stories of a life on the open seas. I felt sad for his handicapped son Willie, but the child did not complain about his lot in life. The other passengers were some of the best American society had to offer. Never had I been in such esteemed company. The menu was as delicious as anything they might serve Queen Victoria. I think we dined six times a day. What a pleasure! We played parlor games in the salon, and engaged in informed conversation.  The journey across the Atlantic was as comfortable and entertaining as it could possibly be. Captain Luce informed us that we were making good time and it should take no longer than ten days.

That fateful day it was exceedingly foggy. We had stayed in our rooms except during breakfast. At approximately noon, we experienced a colossal crash. I was in thrown to the ground.  Alex was thrust against the wall. I regained my standing while Alex went on deck to find out what was happening.  I looked out of the porthole but whatever it was that had occurred it was on the other side of the ship. I could see nothing but the fog. There was a tremendous amount of shouting and screaming. The wait for my loved one’s return seemed to take forever.  When he did return it was not with good news. The Arctic had collided with another ship. But the captain assured us that it was the other vessel that was in danger not ours. We were relieved. Things calmed down and we heard the captain order one of the six lifeboats to be dispatched to help the stricken ship in whatever way they could. Alex and I went on deck and watched the boat, with a small crew, row their way through rough Atlantic waters. The mood on the Arctic was one of helpfulness and our thoughts were with those we thought was in danger of disappearing before our very eyes. But then we heard a shout: “We are sinking!” and we were all suddenly alarmed. It was us that were in trouble. The captain ordered the ship to start steaming away from what we thought was a doomed vessel. This was an outrage under maritime law, but we soon realized that it was the pertinent thing to do. Panic set in. The crew scrabbled for the lifeboats, so did many of the men. We rushed to the salon where our new friends the Browns with their small children were huddled. Captain Luce came to our party and said that space had been reserved for us on the last lifeboat at the rear of the ship. We gathered a few belongings and made our way there. But by the time we located the boat the ropes had been cut and we could see the men row away as fast as they could to be lost in the fog. The next moments were a horrendous blur. People were running around looking for anyway to save themselves. The lower class passengers had stormed on deck and fights broke out. Men jumped over the railings crashing into the few boats still alongside. I remember few details from that terrible time. One of the crew fired a small cannon at intervals signaling the disaster in the hope there might be ships in the area to provide rescue. But, alas, it was not to be.

I awoke aboard a floating piece of the deck. I was wet, cold, and alone. Wreckage and the bodies of the dead surrounded me in the water. The ship was gone. I could see no life boats. I called for help but none came. I thought I was going to die. Maybe I wanted to, but I hoped that my Alexander had somehow survived this tragedy. Darkness fell like a shroud. Just as I felt all was lost a passing ship spotted me and I was rescued. I recounted the series of events to the Captain. He was on his way to St. John’s and he could deliver me there. I had no money or possessions, but the kind people of that port aided me. I was truly grateful for their generosity. One captain of a sloop was journeying to New York and offered to take me there. I had nowhere else to go. I hoped my Alex had survived the disaster. When I arrived, many weeks after the sinking, the city was still in mourning. I learned that Alex had drowned as had so many, including members of the Brown family. For days the good people of New York looked after me, eventually finding me a home and employment in Forestburgh. I never forgot Alex, and the life we had intended, but I found a new love in my new country. And I learned to be thankful the chance that Fate had given me. Maybe one day ship owners will make sure there are enough lifeboats for all the passengers on board. That way the world will not have to experience a maritime tragedy similar to that of the S.S.Arctic.

The letter was signed Mary Green. It was an incredible story that had been overlooked. I knew what I had to do.

 

 

The Digital Slippage of Modern Politics

tech_development

‘The nature of our epoch is multiplicity and indeterminacy. It can rest only on das Gleitende [the slipping], and is aware that what other generations believed to be firm, is in fact, das Gleitende.” Hugo von Hofmannsthal 1905

When Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote those words he was describing an acute awareness that the world of the early 20th century, as far as western society imagined it to be, was sliding away. “Everything fell into parts,” he wrote, “the parts again into more parts, and nothing allowed itself to be encompassed by one idea.”  Fragmentation of the world, as the poet saw it, was occurring through language. Nationhood could not be held together if the cultural glue failed to bond.  Nine years after von Hofmannsthal’s perceptive thoughts the world slipped into the darkness of the Great War, and emerged on the other side shattered beyond recognition. The political landscape, and the planet, had changed forever.

Our modern political system is undergoing a similar “slippage”, this time through digital technology. Western society is built on a transparent democratic foundation that, like a glacier, has moved slowly, even imperceptibly, since the end of the Second World War, up a mountain of problems through the force of political process. As it progressed it carved out new areas in civil rights, gender equality, sexual freedom, and an expectation for a good and comfortable life. But that political foundation on which are modern dreams and beliefs are built has been slowly sliding downhill in the last ten years. And the speed of that “slippage” has increased, particularly with the proliferation of digital technology. An infinite amount of digital elements, from social media to fake news to photo shopped images, has created an unstable bed of digital fragments which have acted like high-tech pebbles underneath our political glacier. This has caused democracy to slide backwards faster each year and further away from effective governance.

Harnessing the power of emerging technology has been an important part of the political process: radio in the 1930s and 40s, television in the 50s and 60s, and, as Barack Obama and Donald Trump have shown, the internet and social media in the 21st century.  These digital tools allow politicians to communicate directly with “the people” quickly and accurately, and can also identify those who are politically undecided. It allows political parties to raise funds and recruit volunteers, to mobilize constituents to rally in favour of certain policies, or even gather to protest against maneuvers of the opposition.

Vyacheslav Polonsk, a network scientist at the University of Oxford, found overwhelming evidence that digital technology influenced the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK. Data analyzed showed that an aggressive on-line campaign by “Leavers” out-muscled “Remainers” by 7-1 on Twitter and 2-1 on Instagram. The photogenic Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau continually posed for “selfies” with his supporters in the run-up to the election in 2015, particularly among young people. And that was just one part of his aggressive on-line strategy that mobilized voters.  Voter turnout was over 68% in the Canadian election the highest in twenty years. In the 18-24 age group those that cast their ballots increased to 67% (up from 55% in 2011). The youthful and handsome Justin Trudeau achieved a landslide victory.

But digital technology cuts both ways. It allows lies, smears, half-truths, and technological manipulation to weaken the political process. It’s a disruptive force. Social media has empowered the individual.  Every twitter broadcasts a viewpoint. Every political orientated Instagram picture magnifies the subject. Every politically orientated Facebook posting or web site has some form of influence over its constituency. There is a social media page for everything from Tea Party adherents to flat-earth society members; from pro-choice advocates to pantsuit nation party members. Each of these digital sites acts as a banner under which believers can rally, organize, and influence the democratic process. Postings continually reinforce the political view espoused by its administrators. The “friends” who are members of that site share a common belief; it may be extreme racism or socialist ideals. Anyone who disagrees with the political stance of that individual is “unfriended”. This produces an isolationist view within that particular class. The reality of this group is continually reinforced by stories, anecdotes, and possibly even lies about their political views. And the facts and opinions that are espoused on those sites do not even have to be true to have an influence on political thoughts, as we have seen with the 2016 US election. There is a famous saying: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” The relevance of that saying is more accurate now in this instant digital age than ever before.

Those lies can be dressed up to appear like a legitimate story giving the “facts” credibility, so-called fake news. The distribution of those lies grows exponentially when they are shared by members of that constituency undermining not just the leaders and members of opposing parties, but the whole political process. In the 2016 US election the “Pizzagate” story spread like a virus across the Internet. According to the news item a number of pizza restaurants in Washington, D.C. were at  the center of a pedophile ring which catered to members of the Democratic Party. The unsubstantiated fact originated from a single twitter posting by an extreme right wing supporter. The lie was then magnified not only by other individuals who posted it on their various social media sites, but by legitimate news outlets more concerned with reporting the conspiracy than checking the facts. One Republican supporter, believing the story to be true, visited one of the restaurants with a rifle to conduct his own “investigation”. He was later arrested. The genesis of the story appeared to come from “clues” buried in emails sent by a member of the Democratic Party. These emails had been hacked and copies then released by Wikileaks. It was a deliberate attempt to derail Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and the Truth be damned.

Akin to fake news are fake photos, fake videos, and manipulated sound bites. The old adage that if you see something – or hear it – it must be true, no longer holds water.  Images of politicians in compromising positions can be photo shopped. Computer generated videos can be created which appear to show dark truths, and the quality of those videos is such that even experts have a hard time distinguishing real from fake (as the video of an eagle snatching a baby created by Montreal animators demonstrated.) Audio recordings edited together by modern digital technology, available to anybody on-line, can create a montage of compromising sound bites.

With the ubiquitous nature of cell phones and their ability to instantly capture and globally distribute images sometimes no manipulation is required to undermine a politician. A citizen was able to capture video footage of Hillary Clinton appearing to partially faint before being supported by staff members as she returned to her vehicle, even though she was flanked and shielded by security guards. Those few seconds of video footage reinforced her political rivals accusation that she was not healthy enough to govern. The ability to control “the message” is key to governing, but with the potential that every citizen can instantly capture and distribute any deviation from that message, whether it be an off the cuff remark, or an image, undermines the party platform.

No computer or on-line component is safe. Hackers can breach every security wall, or insiders can steal computer files as Wikileaks has shown. This prevents political leaders from operating in confidentiality. Government secrets are exposed for all to see; whether it’s clandestine operations such as bugging the offices of foreign leaders, or the revelation that potentially every email can be read and phone call can be monitored. The Wikileaks release of the emails from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta not only helped start the fake news item about Pizzagate, but also showed that the DNC were actively sabotaging Bernie Sanders campaign to achieve leadership of the Democratic Party in favour of Hillary Clinton. And, of course, the unsubstantiated belief that Russian hackers aided Trump’s victory hangs around his presidency like a bad smell. Potentially, election results could be determined not by the country or area that voting is taking place but by an outside force. With no paper back-up vote there is no way to check or re-count.

But the political system is not about representing the people or even ideas, that’s merely a front – it’s about winning. And like the “dark arts” of modern soccer players who feign injury or con the ref into thinking a foul has occurred, leaders do whatever they can to gain an advantage.

Donald Trump gained victory because of his unorthodox use of social media. His scatter gun approach to politics – firing outrageous statements and potential policies at once in a multitude of directions – allowed him to hit at least one target audience with every blast. Whether his extreme views were true or not were irrelevant, for his message was magnified on social media spreading quicker than influenza by both sets of supporters. Those that agreed with his thoughts took solace in the fact that a political leader was giving voice to their politically incorrect beliefs, and those that disagreed with his messages posted his outrageous policies. Either way the Trump brand was continually being referenced. He could have spent hours on a well-crafted and clever press release, but a single outrageous tweet, composed in seconds, gained him greater exposure. That strategy of tweeting consistently, “shooting from the lip”, has become the earmark of his presidency.

As an understanding of these powerful digital tools has increased, it has exposed the democratic system to abuse, manipulation and vulnerability. There is the potential that democracy will eventually slip leaving a void for a new digitally controlled political path and an extreme form of governance: tyranny.

Digital technology allows a ruthless leader to govern more effectively. The internet can be regulated, censorship can be implemented, snooping devices can catch any anti-government thought, cell phones and modern televisions can be switched to act as microphones eavesdropping on  conversations, government sanctioned fake news (formerly known as propaganda) will be distributed instantly and continually, CCTV footage with video recognition technology will allow for the surveillance of any individual deemed a threat to the government, all of these combined will wipe out freedom of speech, freedom of movement, and possibly freedom of thought. The world of Big Brother, as envisioned by author George Orwell in 1984, is upon us.

Democracy is under attack in this digital age. The political advantages of modern technology are outweighed by the disruptive elements that can be created by manipulators. But should a leader emerge who uses the technology to control thoughts and information, then it will allow for greater control of the populace and make it easier govern, albeit with a cyber fist. But that would be fascism. We are in an era of das Gleitende.

Train 97 – An Alternative Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls

If you find yourself in Toronto with a yearning to go beyond the bustle and intensity of the city for a day, then Via Rail’s train 97, known as the Maple Leaf, is a delightful escape. It journeys to the natural wonder of Niagara Falls. When it reaches the border it bridges the expanse of the Niagara River and crosses into the United States.  It then becomes Amtrak train 64 on its way to New York City and Penn Station.  But that’s another adventure.

Prices vary with the season, but every Tuesday VIA Rail posts discount fares. (The discounted fare for the Saturday I went was $42 – only a few dollars more than Greyhound or Megabus.) It’s a pleasure to sit in the carriage, in a reclining seat with extra leg room. Almost every passenger is in some form of holiday mode or meeting family members. It may be a day out at the popular tourist destination, or a student returning home to St. Catharines, or attending a grandchild’s wedding in Albany. There is no struggle with passengers trying to find room for their luggage. Everything is leisurely.

2017-04-15 08.02.14 (640x480)

At exactly 8.20am train 97 pulls out of Union station at a slow crawl past the inner workings of the city’s ever expanding lakeside developments. The conductor announces:  “Have your tickets ready for inspection.” The café car at the back of the train is then declared open; a delightful aspect found on neither bus nor plane. People wander down the corridor in search of early morning coffee. Things are quiet in the rail car, except for the occasional loud burst of childish excitement, and the rhythm of the wheels underneath.

2017-04-15 08.03.13 (640x474)

Speed is gained as the train travels along Lake Ontario. In the suburbs, glimpses of clearly marked places such as Shakers Tap and Grill, and the Blue Goose Tavern catch the eye as the train whizzes by. Occasionally, old folks and young children wave as the Maple Leaf hurtles along its steel tracks. We pass backyards, train yards, graveyards, and scrap yards; factories, who once owed their existence to the nearby track, now derelict. The virus of graffiti, scribbled across the base of the bricks and cement, the only sign that someone has visited these places.

There’s a feeling of past time the further away from the city the train travels. After rounding Lake Ontario, and past the smoke of Hamilton’s tall chimneys, flat farm land is revealed. This is wine country. Rows and rows of stunted trees waiting to give birth to a harvest of grapes line the route.

At approximately 10am, the train pulls into St. Catharines station. It is deserted except for one or two people meetings family members who step off the train. There is no stationmaster or ticket collector. The empty buildings are as they were fifty years ago. On the side of one building are murals depicting the past when the station was the hub of activity: soldiers en route, the arrival of a circus, and residents heading for the city.  Now they are lucky to have more than six passengers. The train does not linger.

“Twenty minutes to Niagara Falls” the conductor announces as he walks down the aisle, repeating the phrase every few steps. The train glides into the Niagara Falls VIA station, but this is not the center of the tourist area with the Falls in sight, or even the flashing lights proclaiming “Casino”. This is the old part of town, the original hub of business. It’s now deserted.

2017-04-15 17.26.47

Passengers alight to be greeted by fresh air, and a few taxis, but nothing else. Opposite is the bus terminal, the only sign of busyness. On the other side of the street is the once prosperous Europa hotel now empty and boarded up. If you ignore the taxis and WeGo tourist buses and walk the route another side of Niagara Falls is revealed. A hundred yards south, towards the river, is Dad’s Diner, an old fashioned restaurant that is a favourite of the locals. A marvelous deluxe breakfast costs less than $6, half the price of the same fare in the tourist district. Around the corner from the diner is the International Youth Hostel providing accommodation for the young at heart on a tight budget. They rent bikes in season.

2017-04-15 10.19.39 (640x480)

Just two blocks south is the “Q” district, Queen Street, once the bustling heart of the old city. Now you can skateboard down the middle of the road without dodging cars. It’s almost a ghost town, as tourists by-pass this corner of town seduced by the lure of the Falls. But this is where you will find Niagara Falls residents, although not many can be seen shopping, and it’s the artistic heart of the community. But there are some businesses with a steady clientele: the wonderful Pedlar bike shop, which has been in business for thirty one years; the Queen Bean coffee shop is a treat for a quick cup of Java, or if something stronger or more fortifying is required there is the Grand Central pub, and Jeffro’s BBQ joint further up Queen Street.   Next to Jeffro’s, on Crysler Street, a new music club is destined to open, Willie John’s Big Easy,  a New Orleans themed club owned by Toronto folks connected to that city’s music scene. The owner’s ambition is to make the establishment a musician’s hangout, bringing talented players to the area, and energy and excitement to a part of town that needs it like a desert survivor needs water. The superb restaurant, Paris Crepes, with its cute design and patio beckons the connoisseur who is in need of some French cuisine. At the top end of Queen Street is the successful pub Taps, which has become the favourite of local musicians. In the summer it hosts “Livestock” a community musical event that features approximately fifty artists on numerous stages. Just beyond Taps is Moose and Pepper’s bistro, a jazz themed restaurant, with a decor and a menu as good as anything found in Toronto. This is indicative of the belief in the street. It has extraordinary potential. There is the awareness that it could be rejuvenated with the colour and culture of artists and musicians.

2017-04-15 10.17.21 (640x480)

There is so much history in this section of town. You can see it in some of the old buildings and mansions still standing, for example as you double back towards the Niagara River, at the corner of Zimmerman Avenue and Park Street, stands the old Customs and Brokerage building. Like a grand old dame the facade exudes a hint of former power, beauty and prestige, but time has exacted its tariff and she waits for someone with love, money and vision to take care of her.

There is a bike trail along Palmer Avenue, which can be accessed at the foot of Queen Street. It leads right into the heart of the tourist area and avoids cars. Or, if the lure of the raging water pulls at your spirit, walk to the Falls themselves. It’s a thirty five minute stroll down the winding River Road which runs alongside the Niagara River. On the river side birds whirl in the open air above the swirling water. It gives that first feeling of being away from urban blight. On the other side of the street is an array of bed and breakfast places, some grand, some hoping to just find a spill-over customer on busy weekends.

The rush of modernity and tourism hits immediately at Clifton Hills. It’s a carnival of attractions from ghost houses to wax works. The hotels, the Niagara Casino, Starbucks, and the Hard Rock Café are all a buzz with excitement. The American Falls are on the other side of the river and people stop to take the first of many photos.

If you have your passport you can even walk across the Rainbow Bridge to New York State. There is a magnificent view of the Falls at the bridge center. Staying on the Ontario side The Canadian Falls are still a ten minute walk away. There is a river of humanity making its way there. Languages and accents from all around the globe are heard.

A zip line, that runs parallel to the river, has been introduced as one of the new attractions this year. It’s fun to watch the tourists flying down the wire, their arms outstretched like wings.  On the other side of the street the luscious green gardens offer a perfect place to rest and absorb this miracle of nature: therapy from the intensity of urban life.

2017-06-25 06.15.16

Following the park path towards the Falls the visitors are greeted by a magnificent sculpture of Nikola Tesla, the genius inventor from the early 20th Century. It was he that championed alternative current electricity and his invention was able to harness the hydro-electric power of Niagara Falls. Tesla has become somewhat of a hero to the internet generation who have discovered not only his remarkable story, his inventions, but his approach to life which, like his electrical invention, was alternative.

2017-07-09 07.02.14

The overlooked gems of this busy tourist area are the hiking trails that lead down to the foot of the gorge. Make use of the WeGo pass and alight at the Whirlpool area. For a price there is an elevator that takes you down to the river’s edge and a white water boardwalk. But if you search out the trail entrance close by there is a marvelous hike down to the Niagara Glen.

KCC @ Niagara Rapids

Niagara Rapids

The rugged path through the woods is spectacular and you may even see people fishing once you get to the river’s edge. The vistas afforded by Mother Nature are a visual treat, particularly with the water rushing by creating music to the ears. But there is also a cove of still water which affords a marvelous place to rest and meditate. There is also another entrance to the Glen about two miles further up the road that is an even more spectacular hiking route.

Catching the green line WeGo bus back into the city, change to a red line bus, and head east down Ferry street to Lundy’s Lane. It’s a ten minute ride to this battleground that was a pivotal moment in the war of 1812 between British North America (Canada) and the United States. The battle, like the war itself, is almost unknown to most people, and yet the history of Canada would be completely different if the American and British forces had not fought to a stalemate at Lundy’s Lane in 1814, essentially ending the thrust of American ambition into Upper Canada.

IMG_0976

After a day wandering around the attractions, or being seduced by blackjack or slot machines, it’s time to catch the bus up the hill to the VIA station. The return rail journey into Toronto is now with train 98 up from the States. Passengers who have had to clear Canadian customs have disembarked, been cleared by the officials, now fill the waiting room, their luggage at their side. They are quiet and reserved, having been there for an hour and a half waiting for everyone to be processed. The Niagara Fall day-trippers arrive just a few minutes before the train boards. They are bright and cheerful, and examine photos on smart phones. They chat about the fun they have had.

At 5.45pm the train leaves Niagara Falls for its return journey north. The passengers are quiet, grateful for the café car serving beer, coffee and sandwiches. Two hours later train 98 pulls into Toronto’s Union station, the beating heart of a city rushing to meet the future like water cascading over the gorge of time.

 

Trailer and Spotify Playlist for Skinheads, Fur Traders, and DJs

 

A true story of an adventurous pop-loving teenager who, in the early 1970s, went from London’s discotheques to the Canadian sub-arctic to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company. His job? Buying furs and helping run the trading post in the settlement of Arviat (then known as Eskimo Point), Northwest Territories (population: 750).

That young man was Kim Clarke Champniss, who would later become a VJ on MuchMusic. His extraordinary adventures unfolded in a chain of On the Road experiences across Canada. His mind-boggling journey, from London, to the far Canadian North, to the spotlight, is the stuff of music and TV legends. Kim brings his incredible knowledge of music and pop culture and the history of disco music, weaving them into this wild story of his exciting and uniquely crazy 1970s.

The Spotify playlist is now live at this link or you can scan the image with the mobile Spotify app to navigate directly to the playlist.
Inline image 1

 

Rock’n’Roll – my part in its downfall.

IMG_0633

I was raised in S.W. London at a time when that area was a cradle for the young British music scene. Pioneering night clubs such as Eel Pie Island and the Ealing Jazz club, and later, the Crawdaddy club, provided a nurturing environment for the likes of Alexis Korner, Cyril Davis (the godfathers of the early British scene), and legendary bands such as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds. The National Jazz and Blues festival at Richmond (just a couple of miles away from where I lived), founded in 1961, morphed from jazz into rock, and featured the who’s-who of the UK music scene by the mid-60s.

My mom reported on the event for the local newspaper. The festival relocated in 1966 and eventually found a permanent home and a new name: the Reading Music Festival. It’s still one of the most important events on the UK modern day music calendar. Back in those early years, the electric energy of rock’n’roll made the local atmosphere crackle with excitement. Beatniks with long hair, and colourful clothes could be seen wandering around Richmond and drinking coffee at the famous L’Auberge café, where, it was rumoured, patrons purchased more than cappuccinos. In Twickenham, young people made the national “Look at Life” cinema news reels as they congregated in the famous Eel Pie Island club.

Legend has it that Long John Baldry discovered Rod Stewart busking on the platform of Twickenham train station after a gig at the storied venue. Even in my own sleepy suburb of Hampton we had a local band, The Others, who, in the mid 60s, were one of the up and comers to watch. They would not achieve national fame, but they inspired the likes of Queen’s Brian May, a pupil at Hampton Grammar school at the time. The music of the day, playing on the radio or record players, filled the large Victorian house that I grew up in. By the mid-60s my older brothers returned home on their Vespas with new records tucked in their parkas, or stories of parties they had attended, or wearing cool new gear like handmade fluorescent orange wide bell bottom pants. I took notice. As rock’n’roll grew older so did I. By the time the 1970s came around the music industry was a profitable and influential business. It had affected change and become a dominant force in young people’s lives. It was all grown up, and I was fully immersed in its culture, and, to some degree, under its influence. In true rock’n’roll style, I was at odds with a structured and rigid society that expected me to know my place. I had no idea what or where that place was. But social order was changing. So was the rhythm of the times.

What was I to do? A job in pop culture was not an option. They did not have “a man from the music industry” in an office-friendly gray suit and tie available for cozy chats on school careers day. In times past there was a mechanism for such wayward youth as me. During the Empire years, rebellious and restless British sons could find work abroad in the companies, plantations, and factories run by ex-pat Brits in such places as: India, South Africa, Jamaica, Rhodesia, Australia, New Zealand, or Canada. But that globe with one quarter of the countries coloured red was long gone (although my school lessons, and some of my hand-me-down books, continually referenced it). It should be noted that my school in Hammersmith, Latymer Upper, had been around since before the golden years of the British Empire, having been founded in 1624. Some of the text books, and the teachers, may not have been that old, but they did hark back to another era. For example, during my junior years, my Latin teacher, Mr. “Milky” Parish, actually taught my father back in the 1930s! Honouring tradition and history was a subliminal part of my education. In the large hall where we gathered every school morning to sing hymns, with its stained glass windows depicting St. George slaying the dragon at one end above the headmaster’s stage, the names of former Latymer school boys who were Oxford and Cambridge graduates were gilded in gold lettering on stylish large black plaques and peered down impressively from high on the wall above the marble memorials that recorded the names of old Latymerians who had died in the First and Second World Wars. The plaques, in chronological order, some of them dating back to at least 1900, circled the great assembly area. My name was not going to be on those University lists I was certain. I wanted adventure.  But, there was no where left to find such an intangible thing. Well, almost nowhere.

One of the last great frontiers at the time was the Canadian north. Today you can receive cell phone reception above the 60th parallel, satellite TV, and internet connections; you can Google Earth to see if there are any igloos still there. Amazon even delivers to Nunavut. Not so in the early 1970s. It was isolated. No connections to the outside world except by short wave radio or by plane. But I had no knowledge of this place. What English teenager would? However, a single accidental and lucky decision led me to the Canadian sub-arctic before it changed forever. I’m so glad it did. I ended up in a world far away from the razzamatazz of London, as a clerk in a trading post, a store from another time, stocking shelves, mopping floors, and purchasing fox and seal furs from the Inuit. The experience, and the people, taught me a lot. It changed me forever and set me on a new path.

Destiny then played another role in my life, this time in helping me make use of my passion for music. It guided me to become involved in the disco revolution of the mid-1970s. I know, hard to believe, one year I’m with some of the most isolated people on the planet, and two years later, I’m a successful DJ at the centre of one of the most crowded places you could imagine in any city – a well-dressed discotheque at the peak of the 1970s.

I have a book due in September: www.dundurn.com/books/Skinheads-Fur-Traders-and-DJs

It’s a wild story. It also happens to be mine. I hope you enjoy it.

Dinner with Dr. King

 

martin-luther-king-jr-9365086-2-402

“Today’s the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s murder,” I told Eddie for no apparent reason other than it just was. He smiled. Eddie had been waiting for me at our regular table by the window. He had already consumed a cup of coffee. Our weekly conversation at the “World’s Greatest Cafe” was off and running. It always flowed effortlessly. My writings, his church commitments, Trump, the economy, getting old, movies, books, wives, our children, and the weather to name but a few of the topics we invariably touched upon. Never any complaining.

     I then expanded on the sad anniversary and recalled the time I was in Memphis and visited the Lorraine Motel where the Civil Rights leader was shot. It was one of those stories I had told many times before. It may have turned a little stale in the retelling.

    “Have I never told you about the time I met him?” Eddie said.

    “Who we talking about here?” I asked, trying to keep track of the conversation that invariably wheeled off in any direction at any tangential thought.

    “King.”

    “You met Martin Luther King?” I asked incredulously.

    “Had dinner with him three times,” Eddie said proudly. “Me, my brothers and my sister hated it.”

     “What? Why?”

     “Well, we were just kids and he came to the house for dinner. At the table he would take a mouth full of food, sit back in the chair, and then begin to chatter on some idea. After a couple of minutes he would stop talking, lean forward, take another fork full of food, lean back, and begin again. As children we had to sit there and listen. It was an hour and a half of excruciating conversation before we were allowed to leave the table.”

     “What was he like?”

     “He was young then, twenty six or seven, but seemed old to us. And very wise. I remember some of the words he used: freedom, integration, and direct action. I didn’t know what he meant, but I could see my parents listened intently, like those in the pews at my dad’s church on Sunday.”

     “What was he doing at your house?” said I, now in journalistic mode.

     “My dad was an Episcopal minister. They connected through the church. I had no idea who King was, other than he was a black man coming to our house. It was 1956. This was Cleveland, one of the posh districts, and things like that did not happen.”

     “Man, that’s amazing. Was your dad influenced by Mr. King’s teachings?”

     “He didn’t take part in any of King’s marches, although dad would be involved in civil rights campaigns on his own. African Americans were welcome at his church and he organized inter-racial study groups. King visited Cleveland lots in the sixties, organizing the black community to get involved in politics: to vote. He came to our house for dinner a couple of more times. I was older then and appreciated the man, and his ideas, a lot more. It was very brave of my dad, doing what he was doing, during radical times. But the one who was most influenced by Dr. King’s teachings was my sister Mary. She was in awe of King, and dedicated her life to the ideas that he espoused. I think she even had a secret crush on him.”

      “You’ve got to write this down; it would make a great article.” Eddie hesitated at the thought.

     “No. I’m too close to the story.”

     “I’ll help. How about I send you some questions to get you started? It will give you a skeleton form and then we can then fill in the blanks. Okay?”

      Eddie agreed and as we left the coffee shop we were both energized by another idea, another project, and another distraction from our aging years. When I returned to my apartment I drafted ten questions and emailed them to him. I thought within a week a fascinating piece of American, and personal, history would be revealed.

 “I can’t do it,” he told me when we met the following Monday.

     “Why not?” I was slightly disappointed.

     “I never told you the other half of the story. The bad stuff.  Many in dad’s congregation were upset about his welcoming of an African American, especially one as radical as Mr. King. The family suffered. We had rocks thrown through the window. I lost friends over it. They would use the “N” word about our dinner guest. They called us commies. After ten years service to the community, the church leaders eventually fired my dad. He applied for jobs, but was never hired. Later, we learned the FBI had influenced employer’s decisions. His name was on the security index, as was King’s. He did get a new job eventually, but the family had to move away from his beloved Cleveland.”

     “That’s an even greater part of the story. You should include it.”

     “I can’t. There’s something else. Mary was killed in a road accident while on her way to an anti-War rally. She had dedicated her life to the cause of civil rights and freedom, and was committed to change. My parents were devastated by her death.”

     Eddie looked at me with a fragment of sadness in his eyes, but resolution in his face. After a moment of silence I picked up the conversation: “What were you doing while all this was going on?”

     “I had dropped out of college. Not only was there student unrest, civil riots marches, but the Vietnam war was escalating. I was cut up about my sister’s death. She was the oldest, the smartest, and the brightest. I joined as many of the anti-war rallies as I could, maybe as a way of honouring her.  I even joined the communist party. It would only be a matter of months before I received my call-up papers. My mother was dead set against the war, even more than my dad. With my mother’s encouragement I drove to Toronto and made it my home. I did not return to the US for many years, even when Amnesty for draft dodgers was declared. And, of course, they killed King in sixty-eight.”

     “I wonder what your dad thought about his murder.”

     “Years later, before he died, I asked him if he was proud of what he had done. No, was his answer. I was shocked. He never explained why. Was it the troubles he put the family through? Or was it Mr. King himself. Or was it my sister’s death. I never found out. It bothered me. Still does.”

     “Fathers and sons,” I said.

     “Heroes,” he corrected me. “We see them in one dimension. We love them, look up to them, and for many of us we live our lives always trying to please them. But then sometimes we see our heroes in another light and it shakes the foundation on which we have built. I can’t write the story. Sorry.”

     I asked: “Would you mind if I write it as best I can?”

    “With my blessing’” was Eddie’s response.

     We left the coffee shop; thoughts heavy on our minds. Once outside we pulled up the collars of our coats to protect ourselves. A light April rain had started to fall like gentle tears from an overcast sky.

A Gift Wrapped in Barbed Wire

cancer-ribbon

“Did you tie one on last night?” one of my co-workers asked as I waited for the production office coffee machine to conclude its morning ritual.

“No, just scratchy rock and roll throat,” I answered as I, mug in hand, waited for the black liquid to fill the carafe. That fall I paid little attention to the hoarse voice I sometimes experienced at the start of my day. It came with the gig. As executive producer of the entertainment news I still attended concerts, parties, and schmoozes, but I rarely drank to excess anymore. I had spent a significant portion of my years living the rock and roll life without falling victim to it. Well, not completely. Whatever changes were occurring to my physique I put down to growing old in a young person’s game.

My scratchy voice was the least of my problems. The world economy was in financial meltdown and the media company I worked for, like banks and other corporations, was suffering from what economists called toxic debt. My bosses had already forewarned me about potential cuts to staff and programming. It wasn’t just my job that I was worried about, but the fifteen young freelancers I had personally hired earlier that year. Christmas was four weeks away and I wanted to make sure everybody remained in a holiday mood. By the end of day that Friday my voice was back to normal.

On Sunday my wife’s best friend arrived in town unexpectedly. The three of us spent the evening reminiscing and drinking red wine. At a break in the conversation I excused myself and went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror. There reflecting back at me was something odd – a lump the size of half a golf ball had popped out like an internal alien on the left side of my neck. Concerned, but not wanting to ruin the evening, I pulled up my shirt collar and returned to the leather couch and stories from years gone by.

The next day I telephoned my doctor and asked for an appointment for my yearly check up. He replied there was no hurry and we should book time in spring. He then asked if there was something specific I was concerned about. I told him about the lump. He asked if I could see him that lunch time.

Three hours later I was in his examination room.

“Open your mouth and say “Ahhh,” he instructed. With his tongue depressor firmly in place he looked down my throat.  “Oh!” he said. Immediately he turned away, picked up the telephone and punched in a number. “I know who you have to see,” he proclaimed. “Damn. There’s no one there.” He banged the receiver down with frustration like a famous rock’n’roll manager I knew. He immediately pressed redial. Still no answer. He slammed the phone down again. I just stared. “Do you have a cell number?” he asked with urgency in his voice. I gave him my Blackberry number. “My secretary will call you as soon as we have contacted my doctor friend at Princess Margaret Hospital.”

During the journey back to work, with morbid thoughts whirling in my head, his secretary buzzed me three times finally confirming an appointment on Wednesday. I said nothing about the visit to my team. I had to keep my mind, and theirs, on the “heavy hitting” entertainment news and gossip due on the air that night about the year’s most talked about personalities –  the talentless Paris Hilton and the magnificent Amy Winehouse.

Two days later I was seated in the crowded waiting room of the breast cancer department of Princess Margaret Hospital. I was in that particular area because the specialist I was due to see performed his weekly duties on those patients with that specific cancer. I was one of the few men in a room filled with women in various stages of treatment. Sadness and worry occupied every seat. Sitting directly opposite me was a woman, about fifty years of age. She sat silently flanked by what presumably were her husband on one side and her grown daughter on the other. They were talking to each other over the bowed head of the woman, not ignoring her, but it appeared this cancer victim was in no mood for trivial conversation. Her eyes lifted up to mine. There was instant recognition that we were both inflicted with the disease. We smiled at each other knowingly. Her husband and daughter continued their chat. Just then blood started to dribble from the woman’s nose.  She was unaware. I silently motioned with my finger, wiping under my own nose. She understood. A tissue pulled from her pocket wiped away the offending trail. A silent thank you was exchanged. Her husband and daughter continued their conversation unawares. What kind of illness is this, I thought, that you don’t even know you have blood trickling down your face?

My name was called and a nurse led me into an examination room. Three doctors entered and introduced themselves as experts in various fields of cancer. They examined the lump, pulled it, prodded it, and peered down my throat. After numbing one of my nostrils with some form of spray, a tiny camera, fastened on the end of a snake-like wire, was inserted up my nose and then wiggled down my throat. I had my eyes to heaven, moist with tears from the unnatural insertion, and tried hard to relax while the three doctors watched a monitor as they maneuvered the camera around the base of my tongue.

“Take a look,” one of them said.

Gently, with the camera still up my nostril, I glanced at the image on the screen. It was like an over sized wad of bubblegum.

“You have a large tumour,” one of them said.

After the camera was removed I asked the obvious question: “Is it cancer?”

“Oh yes. And it’s very aggressive.”

I said nothing. A needle was lanced into the lump and a sample taken.

“Come back Friday and we will have an update for you.”

Back at home I broke the news to my wife. It was hard for us both to keep our emotions in check, but, for whatever reason, I felt confident that I could beat the disease. We decided not to tell family or friends until I was in control of the situation.

That Friday I was back at the hospital, this time in the head and neck cancer department. Once again the three doctors gathered around me. They confirmed I had squamous cell carcinoma.  While two of the doctors conferred, the youngest of the three asked about my lifestyle and other pertinent health questions. I was still feeling confident that I could beat this.

“What are my odds?” I asked him “Fifty fifty?”

“Not even,” he said matter of fact.

I buckled under the weight of the prognosis.

The two senior doctors finished conferring and addressed me.

“It’s growing quickly”, said one, “something has to be done immediately.”

“We could cut out your tongue,” said another.

“…and then give you a voice box,” said the third.

There was no way I was going to let them do that. I made my living with my voice.

“Well, there is an experimental program going on right now on the eighteenth floor of the hospital. You would be an ideal candidate. There are twenty eight people already under care, but I think they have room for one more. The drugs they administer have yet to be approved by the government. But I think it’s your best chance to shrink the tumour before undergoing regular treatment. All costs are covered, but you have to sign forms not holding the hospital responsible should there be any adverse effects.”

“Where do I sign?” I responded.

Ten days later, in preparation for admittance to the experimental program, I was in the hospital room where blood samples were taken. My wife accompanied me. There was one other person there – a mother of three children whom my wife recognized. The woman, who turned out to be a well-known journalist, mentioned that she had been a long term cancer victim.

“It’s a gift wrapped in barbed wire,” she said.

I had no understanding of what she meant by that phrase. Worried that this person might break the news of my cancer before I had a chance to inform those closest to me, I asked that she not say anything.

“It’s not my story,” she said with the confidence of a writer. “It’s yours.” The woman was then called to give a blood sample. Weeks later, I learned her cancer was terminal. Sadly, I heard she passed, but I never forgot her words.

My experimental treatment lasted nine weeks. Miraculously, it worked. The tumour shrunk dramatically. I then endured regular radiation and chemo for another nine weeks. When I was strong enough I went to work to not only remain in control of the situation, but to maintain a full pay cheque without going on short term disability. But, eventually, I became so weak I had to do exactly that.  I won’t go into all the details but, yes, I lost my hair, and much of  my weight; I lost control of my bodily functions, and my brain would go AWOL particularly when my head was in the bucket beside the bed.  The radiation exacted its toll. Large doses of morphine, administered to ease the pain, conjured up shamanistic dreams that were unsettling. The plastic feeding tube implanted in my stomach and the daily liquid formula (poured in three times a day) gave me no enjoyment, even if I could keep it down. But after six months of journeying me to the edge of death and then bringing me back again the doctors announced that the tumour was gone. I couldn’t thank them enough. My wife’s vigilant care during the sickness, along with loving help from my teenage sons, was also crucial.

I was then able to return to work. My co-workers and senior management had been incredibly supportive. But the toxic debt that had crippled the company was untreatable. The business had fallen victim to the global recession. Bankruptcy was imminent. I laid-off my team and myself. I then spent the next six months trying to re-build my character. I had changed, not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. The metaphor that came to mind was that of a laptop. The hard drive remained, but the interface screen was now wiped clean. It had to be re-established slowly. And it was different than what had been before. I thanked the universe which now allowed me to once again step out into the world with the gift of a new me.

Distant Memories of Close Neighbours

DSCF0091

Growing up in Murree House in St. James’s Road, London I remember our neighbours distinctly. Not all of them were close enough to call family, but you would always say hello to them when you met. There would always be the small talk and how so-and-so was doing. And if there was some form of emergency, or you just needed an extra hand to hold the ladder, you could call on them and they would help if they could.

The earliest neighbours I recall were the ones that lived on all three sides of our house, the Leatherdales to one side, the Keenes on the other, and at the bottom of the garden there was Mr. Totem whose family had been there for what I assumed was at least a hundred years. There was, in fact, a fourth adjoining neighbour – the Roters. Their oversized back lawn touched one corner of our lot, in the furthest area from our house, by the walnut tree that we were allowed to climb during playtime. The Roters had children that were vaguely the same age as me and my brothers and so we had an iron play ladder that had hooks on one end as if it was from an old galleon. Its length, and those hooks, was perfect and it was perpetually propped up against the wooden fence that the two families shared. That way the children could come and go into each other’s play areas without travelling the long distance via the streets.

We often had to go and knock on the Leatherdale’s front door to ask if we could retrieve our ball. Mr. and Mrs. Leatherdale were always very pleasant about those interruptions. Many years later when I had returned to look after my elderly parents and the old house my mom was forever looking in on Mrs. Leatherdale, who was now a widow and suffering from dementia. My mother made sure I visited to say hello, before her mind was completely erased by Alzheimer’s. She was on the verge of complete mental annihilation but she had vague memories, and of course, “hadn’t I grown.” She was hospitalized soon after. A For Sale sign now appeared outside her house. My mom, herself, slipped into dementia within months of Mrs. Leatherdale sudden departure. I read recently that Mrs. Leatherdale had passed.

As for Mr. Keene, I have few memories of him, except he was old and kept to himself. I believe he had a wife but my memory of her is that of a ghost. I don’t think Mr. Keene, who spent his time manicuring his perfect back lot, appreciated all the playful screams and shouts from our rambunctious brood playing in the overgrown grass that doubled as jungle camps on summer days. What I do remember specifically is climbing up on our old rusty coal bunkers to pluck apples from his luscious tree whose branches spilled over to our side of the fence. It was called “scrumping” (stealing apples). We had three apple trees in our own garden, but Mr. Keene’s apples were bigger and sweeter than our September harvest. And far more delicious spiked with guilty pleasure. When the Keene’s moved on (to heaven I presumed) my dad told me that the they had an “arrangement”. She lived in one part of the house, he in the other, they hardly talked to each other, and that’s how they got on with life. I was amazed at this nugget of gossip that gave me my first worth of understanding of how life was more complicated behind those wooden front doors that I passed every day.

The Keene’s house was sold to the Birches, and their family and ours became very close. The parents were from a slightly younger generation than my parents, if fact they were just slightly older than my oldest brother. So there was this wonderful relationship at all levels of interaction. Their three children (Gary, Trevor, and Clare) were close in age to me. We were not necessarily great friends, but we were trusting of each other and good company when we did get together. A fourth child, Adam, was born a few years after their arrival in the street. In later years, Adam would remain friends with my parents, helping out whenever needed, after all of us children moved away. He, too, would make a career in the music business and visit me when in Toronto, extending that unique connection across thousands of kilometers and five decades.

Many nights the children would sleep at our house if for some reason their parents were away.  Each family had left a spare front door key with each other in case someone was locked out. The two sets of parents became even closer as they aged. They remain in contact to this day, even though my parents have since moved into a care home. My dad will call Eileen Birch to talk about their partners, each of whom is slipping into mental darkness. But they, the mentally fit, are being tethered by time and limited by atrophy. The telephone remains the most neighbourly dimension of their life as if it were a chat over the back garden fence.

Past the Birches there was Mrs. Male, Mrs. Orton, and Mrs. Sedgewick. I hadn’t thought of it till I wrote this down but I guess they were all widows. There were sons involved but no other male influence, well, not that I was aware of. Those women had all lived in the road before my mom bought the house in 1951. So they were very much the senior influence on the street. Mrs. Male was ancient even then, but she was always there with a smile and an invite to come in for a cup of tea and a biscuit. Mrs. Orton was the village historian (Hampton Hill was still considered a village by many of the era even though it was fast being absorbed in to Greater London) and she wrote the definitive history of the community. For some reason, I have a memory (it may be false) of her giving me pages of a continuation of that history that was never published as if I too would become a local historian. That may just be my imagination, but the thought is worth a point. I have made a living out of history, more pop than academic, but still stories worth telling.

Mrs. Sedgewick was quiet and alone. In her final years her son Bill, a man in his 50s, came to live with her and look after her needs. He bought a golden Labrador dog called Lucky, full of frenzied excitement and potential aggression, possibly just protecting his mistress, which was his other job beyond just company. Mrs. Sedgewick’s door was always left ajar and Lucky would come bounding down the front path barking at passerbys, his feet propped up on the top of the closed wooden gate, his head reaching out to the sidewalk and would continue to bark long after the individual had passed. Bill looked after his mother right to her death and then inherited the house and Lucky the dog. He died shortly of a heart attack.

2540392_3df4e863

On the other side of the road further down was Wayside. This old house was actually owned by  St. James’s church, which, besides owning this beautiful old house, anchored the road and gave it its name. Wayside would double as a Sunday school during those early years. Our family was only loosely connected to the church; we were never religious orientated. Other than special occasions my only recollection of being in the church with regularity was during my years as a cub scout when on the last Sunday of every month when the cubs, the scouts, the girl guides, the Brownies, and the troops’ various leaders gathered at the bottom of the road for church parade. With flags flying we would all march up St. James’s Road and the neighbours would come out of their houses to watch before many of them took their place in the pews. It was always an honour to be named as flag bearer, just like in the Olympics. I believe I was asked more than once to lead our troop – the 3rd Hampton Hill Cubs all dressed in our green heavy sweaters decorated with our numerous badges, caps on our heads, and yellow and brown neckerchiefs dangling down secured around our necks with a toggle. Sometimes a band would lead the march particularly on special days like Remembrance Sundays. Such days were a sight to behold on leafy, Victorian St. James’s Road. Years later, while doing research on our house and road, I discovered the role the original owners of the house played in the development of the parish. It was no accident that church parade marched proudly it front of the houses that were the corner stone of the congregation.

But back to the house known as Wayside. Many years later, on one of my trips home from Canada, to take care of my parents, my dad informed me of the great Canadian hero that had spent his final days in Wayside, and was in fact buried in St. James’s churchyard. Well, he had originally been buried there but his body had been exhumed and flown to Woodstock, Ontario where it was re-entombed. His name was Joseph Whiteside Boyle. I had never heard of the man, so I researched his history and was flabbergasted to discover his life story and heroics. His living quarters had been my Sunday school room! I felt he was a neighbor as well, although this one more ghostly than real.

8075ba2d-1fa1-47e3-bedc-30e2da0d6139

Mr. Boyle’s connection via the graveyard, a place where I played tag growing up, was not the only other connection to my new country of Canada. There buried in the hallowed ground were seventeen members of the Canadian army who had died during the First World War. Many of them were from Newfoundland. (More accurately, those from “the rock” were then members of the British army as Newfoundland did not join Canadian confederation till 1949.) Their final resting place of St. James’s churchyard came about because during the Great War the Lodge in nearby Bushy Park was converted into a hospital for Canadian troops. And these seventeen did not survive their wounds and were buried here. Again, something I only discovered on my pilgrimages home, and, by way of representing Canada, I visited their graves to pay my respects.

WWI Canadian war graves in cemetery by St James's Church, Hampto

There was a Canadian military hospital in Upper Lodge, Bushy Park during the war.

The living connection to the army in St. James’s Road was the Fisher family. They lived next to Wayside. Mr. Fisher had been a Colonel in the British Army (tank regiment I think) and his son followed in father’s footsteps. The whole street was proud to have such a distinguished neighbor. Their daughter, Wendy, was very close to our family and was my tutor when I was about eight years old. It was a time when my parents were anxious for me to pass the preparatory exam into the respected grammar school Latymer Upper and so hired Wendy to improve my skills. It worked. At nine years of age I joined the prep school and each morning I walked down St. James’s Road, along Windmill Road, to the High Street to catch the 267 bus into Hammersmith.

Next to the vicarage were the Warders. I can’t remember exactly what Mr. and Mrs. Warder did, but they were incredibly well-respected. Their daughter Jenny baby sat our brood, and she became godmother to my young sister. The family bond was so strong that recently my sister visited Jenny, who is now in her seventies, and the two talked about old times. My sister mentioned that I had written a history of Murree House. I then received an email asking for a copy to be forwarded to Jenny which I did. The thank you note in response was the first communication I had had with Jenny in over fifty years. What was also special were some of the remembrances that Jenny alluded to that, to some degree, triggered this stream of vivid recalls; such as Bunty our boxer dog, whose sad face is still clear in my mind. Like all boxer dogs she was always guilty of slobbering, but she was so loveable you just wiped away the spittle and allowed her head to rest on your lap. I remember when her body became sore with raw tumours and the whispering around the dinner table was that she would have to be “put down”. I was heartbroken and raced home every day after junior school to make sure she was still alive. On the day that the visit to the vet was planned I was especially sad. When I returned from school I entered the house thinking I would never see her again, but when I went to my bedroom there was the old girl on the bed. I was so happy, and threw my arms around her neck to hug her. The visit to the vet had been cancelled by a day or two. But of course the end had to come.

Jenny also mentioned in her email our toy “station wagon”, a remembrance so small it had almost slipped through the net of memory, yet we spent many an hour playing with the toy vehicle. It was a well-built wooden contraption with thick black tyres and a metal rod with a squashed looped at one end that allowed the wagon to be pulled with authority. I think it was painted red. As kids we would ride in the wagon and adults, like Jenny, would pull us along much to our young delight. I’m sure that more than a few times we graduated from the back garden to St. James’s Road so the grown up could get “a head of steam” on a straight path. The wagon also doubled as a work vehicle and heavy loads could be transported to help my dad with his gardening projects.

My eldest brother Waynne had a good friend Mick, who lived just two streets over. When I was about six Mick came to live with us before he joined the Royal Navy at fifteen. My brothers and I took the toy “station wagon” down to Mick’s house, loaded it up with his few personal possessions and then pulled the vehicle back along Windmill Road, then turned on St. James’s and onward to Murree House. There we unloaded his gear like real furniture removers and carried it up to the stairs to Mick’s temporary new bedroom. That Christmas, his last before signing away ten years of his life to serve the country, he bought white plastic cowboy hats that we all wore at the holiday dinner table. Mick became another brother to us children, and another son to my parents. He and his wife still visit them in the care home.

Christmas was a joyous time in Murree House. It was my mom’s favourite time and she began planning, sorting, wrapping months before the holiday. Those preparations included sending out hundreds and hundreds of Christmas cards to friends and acquaintances around the world that they had met on their many travels. Of course, there was a reciprocal reaction and hundreds and hundreds of cards were pushed through the mail box over the course of the weeks leading up to the holiday. The postman would joke about the quantity, and breadth, of the correspondence. Parcels also arrived. With five children in the house the presents were piled high under the tall tree. In those early years my parents invited all the neighbours to come by for a glass of sherry Christmas morning (many of them had no small children making a visit to our house easier) and the living room would be crowded with fifty or so people all making small talk. As kids we were expected to act as young hosts and our job was to offer drink re-fills and cigarettes from stylish boxes. We also had to empty the many ashtrays which filled quickly.

One of the people who we “adopted” over Christmas was Peggy Burgess. She was the large and lovable woman who was the warden of Walton Lodge. This was a giant of a house, with many rooms, that was owned by the local council and was directly opposite Murree House on the other side of the street. It was the residence of teenage girls who were in care of the council for various reasons. Peggy would visit our home over Christmas when most of her female charges were away with members of their fragmented families. Peggy would appear with her large chatelaine around her belted waist, the many keys jangling as she walked. She had a riotous laugh and was a lot of fun (particularly after a couple of glasses of sherry), but I’m sure she could lower the boom in a hurry when the girls got out of line. Some of those girls ended up dating my older brothers over the years and became close to the family even when those relationships ran their course.

November the 5th – Guy Fawkes Night when the colours and loud bangs of fireworks filled the air was also another neighbor filled event. A large bonfire was built at the bottom of the our garden and a stuffed “guy” was burnt. This was symbolic of the time Mr. Fawkes tried to blow up the English parliament back in the seventeenth century. He was caught and executed and the burning was celebration of that act. Today, we might praise “the guy” as a hero. I digress. What the occasion allowed was another invitation to the neighbours to visit our house and venture out to the back garden and witness the fireworks, and the flames, and the enjoyment of tribes of young people getting up to mischief with gunpowder. Luckily, there were not too many injuries. Today, the experience is far more controlled in communities if not completely outlawed.

I have no understanding why these assorted memories have stayed with me. They are not tangible; they have no real importance except as people who crossed my path of life. Many of the people concerned have since passed. But to recall them, even for a moment, honours not only them, but another time and another place, when somebody held open the garden gate and I stepped through.

Behind the Juno Curtain

2011 JUNO Awards Statuette

This week the Juno Awards won a 2017 Canadian Screen Award for best music program for last year’s spectacular TV show. It was well-earned recognition for a show that takes a year to conceive with hundreds, if not thousands, of moving parts, potentially career changing awards to handout, countless twists and turns, numerous creative, financial and physical hurdles to jump over, all to produce a two-hour seamless (“is this the right envelope?”) live broadcast.

I have been involved with the show for many years, even going back to the late 80’s when I worked for MuchMusic and hosted what was then the pre-show for the non-broadcast awards. My involvement with the show has increased over the last seven years when I was asked to produce and write the tribute tapes for the artists presented with the Hall of Fame, Humanitarian, and Walt Grealis industry awards. I am more than honoured to produce short vignettes about Canada’s greatest musicians and successful captains of the music business. My involvement with the show expanded a couple of years ago when I was asked to write the nominee segments, the short introductions for such awards as “single of the year”.

Since 1991 the show has “gone on the road”, pulling up its Toronto stakes, and taking the musical excitement from one end of the country to the other. Even though it puts extra pressure on the production side of things (trying to secure everything from hotel rooms to hiring local crews) the payoff is enormous. For example, when the Junos went to St. John’s in 2010 and Regina in 2013 the response by the hometown crowd was as if the Stanley Cup champions had come to town.

My involvement means I fly in a couple of days before the big show. My tribute tapes are completed and mixed the week before (fingers crossed there are no last-minute blips), and by the time I get to the venue it’s the script writing element and sometimes last-minute voice overs that need my attention. Meanwhile, I look on in amazement at the sheer size of the event, the coordination in the numerous departments, the hundreds of individuals all focused on their particular areas.

The stage is being built, the cameras are being positioned, the venue is being dressed, the transportation captain coordinates pick-ups, the artists are being accommodated, rehearsals are being arranged, and the host(s) is being briefed. And that’s just the front-end stuff. Trucks delivering and picking up gear have to be timed perfectly so they all don’t arrive at once, meals for the hundreds of workers have to be prepared and arranged, make-up and hair needs to be established, wranglers have to be appointed to shadow the talent to make sure everyone is in the right place at the right time. In the production office it’s a mad house of activity with production personnel and assistants all making sure the show goes on. All of this is coordinated under the grand vision of the TV director and executive producers. The show has to be timed to the second. It’s a live broadcast. Anything can happen. It’s wonderfully crazy, but logistically mind-boggling. It’s a jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of parts that must all fit together smoothly in front of a nation watching in their living room, or on-line.

One of my extra duties in the last couple of years is helping the individual who warms up the crowd just before the show begins and while it is in commercial break. For the last two years it has been the affable and talented T.Rex from MuchMusic. With my master-script in hand I am at the side of the stage and I arm him with such information as what awards and performances are coming up next. He then addresses the ten thousand strong live audience and keeps the excitement going while set changes occur on stage, and ads are running on the network.

Last year, at Calgary’s Saddledome, a small, but important element occurred which highlighted what can happen at any given time on a show that is unfolding as the minutes tick by. And it just concerned my small world. The challenges for some of the more important areas can be even more crucial. Back to my scenario: three-quarters of the way through the broadcast, with the show unfolding beautifully, I’m at side stage prepping T.Rex. I get a tap on the shoulder from an assistant. I turn around.

“Lindsay (exec-producer Lindsay Cox) needs you,” the concerned young woman said. “We are running over time. She needs you to save thirty seconds on Nickelback’s intro to Burton Cummings.”

“Where is she?” I answer.

“Master control area. Quickly, follow me.”

I close the script bible, tuck it under my arm, leave the backstage area, and follow the assistant. T. Rex sees me depart.

“Hey, where you going?” he says. ‘I’m up in a minute.”

“Minor crisis. You ok with the next segment?”

He is and I continue my fast paced exit towards the production nerve center, an area cordoned off by just black curtains tucked away to one side of the main venue walkway. I enter. It’s like Cape Canaveral, and as intense as a moon landing. There are about eight different monitors displaying the various camera angles and the main TV feed showing what the public is seeing. Numerous personnel wear head phones connected to Dave Russell, the director in the live feed truck; seated behind them at the back of the cramped space are a handful of network executives, off to one side are two women controlling the teleprompter for any last second script changes (such as: “he just won breakthrough artist of the year…here now to present…”). In the middle of all this action is Lindsay Cox keeping the show on time and track.

She sees me enter, interrupts who she is talking to on the headset, which she then pulls off her head.

“We need to shave seconds off the Nickelback intro,” she states emphatically. “They are due up after this commercial break.”

“OK,” I answer and open the master script to the Burton Cummings intro. “We eliminate this section here…and move Ryan’s part here…”

“Do it…make the changes in teleprompter…” I move over to the women at the teleprompter who have been following the exchange. They are just about to make the changes. “No,” Lindsay says, “…make sure Nickelback are ok with the shift.”

“Where are they now?” I ask.

The assistant checks her rundown, checks the time, speaks into the walkie-talkie. “The wrangler has them. They are on their way to entrance B.”

“Where’s that?” I say.

“Quick follow me,” she says. “It’s on the other side of main stage.”

We run out of the control area. Every second counts. T. Rex is on stage hyping the crowd. I can hear them cheering. The clock is ticking. Nickelback are due up in two minutes to honour and introduce the Burton Cummings tribute that I have produced.

Behind the main stage is the unseen stage that has all the guitars, drums, monitors, etc all prepared and ready to go. Only artists, roadies, and stage personnel are allowed to cross it. Everyone else must go around. It’s a bottle neck that takes an extra amount of seconds to negotiate. We need those extra seconds. The assistant knows what I am thinking.

“Under here,” she says, and we scramble underneath the risers and emerge on the other side in mere moments.

Coming down the tunnel are the four members of Nickelback looking calm and enjoying themselves. They are accompanied by their publicist. She recognizes me and knows I have an immediate task to perform.

“What’s up?” she says as the Nickelback guys gather round to listen. I tell them we are running over time and need to shave seconds. I open the master script and explain what I have in mind.

“No problem,” says band leader Chad. Bless ‘em, I think to myself. “But let Ryan read over what he has to say.” I show the script to Ryan. He reads it no problem. I tell him it will be in the teleprompter.

Just then the wrangler gets a call on his walkie-talkie and tells Nickelback: “They need you at the side of the stage. You are up in one minute.”

I run back, script in hand, under the back stage risers, dodging the various bodies all doing their tasks, through the black curtains of the control centre, straight towards the teleprompter, instruct the changes, re-read the changes to verify they are correct, and then turn to Lindsay.

“Done,” and I leave Lindsay to her orchestration of the show.

I return to side stage to see T.Rex finish his part, and hear the booming voice of the Junos, Mark Strong, announce to the live and TV audience “Welcome back to the 2016 Juno awards, please welcome to the stage Nickelback…” The crowd gives them an enthusiastic welcome. I watch intently to make sure those changes go off without a hitch. Nickelback deliver the introduction to the tribute tape beautifully without any hiccups. The tape plays and I look on with a certain amount of pride. After it’s finished playing Chad announces “Ladies and gentleman…Burton Cummings!” Burton strolls on stage. The crowd goes wild. They give him a two-minute standing ovation! The response is incredible.

The time we saved was eclipsed by something that you cannot plan for – the human and unpredictable element. But it was the highlight of the show and worth every second. I’m not sure how Lindsay made up the rest of the time. But the show continued on time and on track. And when it was all over we all knew that it was a good one. There is very little to equal pulling off a successful live show. After all that preparation and stress the production personnel, no matter how big or small, breathe a sigh of relief and take pride in a show worthy of the ever-growing Canadian music scene. The show deserved to win the Canadian Screen Award. To all the artists and production personnel who help pull off a grand live event…cheers! Proud to be part of it.