For The Love of Libraries

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When I was a young boy, living in a part of London that modern times had bypassed, it was a great thrill to be allowed to walk down to the old library all by myself. I felt grown up, empowered by a cardboard library card that had my name and address on it, my first official piece of “identification”.   When I made my way to the children’s section I would look for the holiday annuals of Beano and Dandy, or, if they weren’t available, picture books about football greats like Sir Stanley Matthews. I would dream of having the same skill as him. I would sometimes checkout a couple of “serious” books by such authors as Enid Blyton, or Sir Walter Scott, or collections of mystery and ghost stories. The women behind the counter knew my mom (everyone in the community seemed to know my mom) and would comment on my choices so I had to make sure I didn’t check out anything naughty.  Inevitably the books would stay unread in my bedroom (except the Beano and Dandy) until it was time for them to be returned. And once again it would give me an excuse to leave the house and wander down Windmill Road.

During my teen years I hardly ever went to the library, unless there was a school project due and I was in need of information. Of course, there was no computer in those days. We had an outdated encyclopedia collection at home, but as my mom said “you need more than one information source for an essay”.  But if I did go it gave me the chance to read all the English daily newspapers. And there were lots of them: the Times, the DailyTelegraph, the Mail, the Mirror, the Express, and I think the Daily Sketch may have still been in existence. The reading table was strewn with them, carelessly left by continual readers. I could scan various reports of the most important football matches by numerous reporters. I could check out the scandalous sexy stories in the Sunday papers like News of the World or The People. There was also a host of other fringe newspapers – the local ones, the specialized ones, the ones that would find a use as wrapping in your local fish and chip store because no one ever read them unless they were desperate at the library. I grew to love reading newspapers.

By my twenties, and the mid 1970s, I lived in Vancouver, Canada and was enrolled at the University of British Columbia.  Books, not the internet, were still the most important part of a successful student life. You had to know how to use the huge library if you were going to succeed: how to look for a book, where to look for it, and reserve it if it wasn’t available and how to use the state of the art microfiche scanner. There were only a limited number of crucial texts available for certain courses, and if you didn’t want to buy the book, you had to make sure you got to the library quicker than the other students to at least Xerox the relevant pages.

I loved the library at UBC. By this time I had found a love for reading more than the Beano and Dandy (well I had to didn’t I – I was studying English and Creative Writing). I tried to make up for all the lost time by reading as many crucial books that appealed to my sensibility as possible: The Catcher in the Rye, On The Road, The Bell Jar, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Sons and Lover, plus a shelf full of others. On wet or lonely days I would wander through the stacks and skim the titles of books on any subject and arbitrarily pull out volumes that appeared fascinating, jumping around from subject to subject as today I might follow a hot link on the World Wide Web. I would read a page or two on dreams, psychology, world history, social commentary. Sometimes relationships would emerge between things that did not appear obvious, but somehow were connected. Would Sylvia Plath have committed suicide if the British Government had an active women’s support group in the austere world of the early 1960’s? Would Jack Kerouac have gone on the road if the United States had not dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? And was pop culture’s fascination with nostalgia a sign of a decadent society in a death spiral? Brief readings of these questions in the half-dark between the tall shelves of UBC library were illuminating.

There was even a collection of vinyl records in the library. On slow days, or days when I was doing my best to do anything but write an essay, I scanned the albums (mostly classical or jazz) and randomly picked something interesting. I had no knowledge of classical music, but as luck would have it one day I chose something I had never heard before: Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte”. The music so inspired me I wrote a poem around the pictures conjured up in my mind.

After graduation I took the difficult road of trying to make a living in the music industry. The early ’80s were a time of recession and unemployment. Life was a series of ups and downs like the proverbial roller coaster. I was hanging on as tight as I could. No money was coming in, but I still hadn’t terminated my dream. Things hit bottom when I found myself sleeping in a warehouse. I would wash and brush my teeth at the local swimming baths, and then I would spend my day at the Vancouver library. Besides all the books and newspapers it had a clean, safe washroom, an important element if you have no home. I was now part of all the other library regulars: the lonely, the unemployed, the homeless, the academics, the sweet old ladies who needed something to do. Access to the newspapers not only gave you a chance to catch up on the world events – had they blown up the world yet without telling you?  Was Korean airliner 007 really a spy plane? But also check the help wanted ads (still no internet) so you always had to be armed with a pen and paper to write down the details. There was a pay phone in the lobby so you could make the call quickly and easily provided you had a quarter or two that wasn’t set aside for that night’s tin of baked beans.

My life got back on track and once again libraries fell out of favor until I was settled, married, and the kids came along. As they grew up I taught them how to use the library: how to look for such books as Goosebumps and Captain Underpants. It was also the era when computers became fixtures and it was the first place they learnt to use the machines until such time as we were able to get one for the home.

It was the home computer that replaced the library visits, especially for the children.  Oh, they would still read occasionally, but now times were good and we could afford to buy the books they wanted to read: The Lord of the Rings, Lemony Snicket, and Harry Potter. The library was no longer a regular part of our lives, but I rediscovered its joy and usefulness in an unlikely place….the library of my childhood.

I became concerned with my elderly parents who were still looking after themselves in the same house I grew up in, the house I was so anxious to leave on my own when I was young. I began to fly over to the UK twice a year to take care of them. Being elderly they had no computer. When I visited it was important to stay connected via email to my family and my job in Canada.  And so I walked down Windmill Road, as I had done as a child over forty years ago in search of the library. The old library had been turned into trendy apartments, but not too far away, in the High Street, was its brand new location. It was far smaller than the original, maybe one-third of the size, but there in the corner were five computers available for public use. I explained who I was and the librarian was nice enough to grant me a card – a plastic one now not cardboard. And so I remained in contact with the bigger world. My days visiting my parents, to some degree, revolved around the library hours. They would open at 9.30 in the morning, so at 9.20 I would leave the house, walk the ten minutes to the High Street, going through the automatic sliding doors, check my email on the computer, then provided nothing extreme was happening in the digital world, would then do the grocery shopping for my parents and return along the same route that I walked all those years ago. The library was a professional life saver and its card was as crucial to me as the oyster card was for getting around on London transport. Both were as important as my passport whenever I returned to England.

These days the funding for libraries has been cut, and they have fallen out of favor with privileged people who have access to the world’s data bank via the smart phone in their pocket. They appear to some to be an anachronism. But let me tell you there are countless people who depend upon them.  As you get older one of the things you begin to become aware of is the need for projects to occupy your time and your mind: also, the importance of getting out if for no other reason than to see other human beings.  Empty days need structure and visits to the library not only help pass the time, but also they are an information hub. Meetings for young mums, readings with authors, the ability to use the computers, print pages, and borrow DVDs.

Times change, information delivery systems change, stories change, but the role of the library does not change. It anchors communities. It allows access to a bigger world when financial, personal or cultural barriers are obstacles on the highway of life. I love you libraries. Thanks for being there. What time do you open?

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Mind Your Head

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Thanks for visiting. It’s good to be able to chat with somebody. It all started with the basement apartment. It was not the most glamorous place I had ever seen, but it was safe and clean. Not as clean and sterile as these crisp sheets, but decent enough. It was also next to an old Catholic church that had a noisy daycare. The bruised white basement door opened directly onto its parking lot, which may be why the apartment was relatively cheap.

The ideal candidate for the basement apartment, as far as the landlady was concerned, was a young student. There was no kitchen although there was a toaster oven, microwave and mini-fridge. There was a desk, a chair, an old TV, internet access, and a private bathroom. Sheets, blankets and towels came with the place, and there was a washer and dryer in the house that I could use. This was important as I only had a gym bag of clothes that I had been carrying with me for the last three months. As far as elements of my new life were concerned, if I couldn’t carry it, I couldn’t have it. It was a weekly cycle of T-shirts, underwear, socks and jeans. I tried to mix and match the clothes as much as possible so that people didn’t think I was homeless, although, of course, I was on the verge of being just that.

When the landlady showed me the basement the first thing she said was “Mind your head.” The main room had a low, wide ceiling beam running down the middle. You could stand straight up on either side, but you had to duck, or do the limbo, if you went from one area to the next. But the two room apartment was private, and the owner seemed like a nice woman. I was desperate, so I said I would take it right then and there. I told her straight up about my predicament as she would have thought it unusual that a man of my age was willing to move into a space intended for someone at an earlier stage of life. Thankfully, she understood and said I could have the keys two days later, after the cheque cleared. She wanted to make sure I wasn’t penniless as well as homeless.

With no job, limited funds, and October winds rattling the dust speckled basement window, it was hard to stay positive. My day was as empty as the mini-fridge – a few items but nothing substantial. Each morning I sat in the solitary chair at the vacant desk and looked up to strangers’ feet walk by with regularity as they made their way to a busy working world. It’s amazing how shoes tell so much about a person. As for me, I hardly had any reason to change out of my old, but comfortable, moccasin slippers. My day was an endless cycle of checking e-mails hoping at least one recruiter had responded to my countless job applications.  Life’s experience was limited to ticking numerous on-line boxes and being defined by a single job title. I must have missed lots of boxes. There were only a few automated responses, and ultimately nothing tangible was ever offered. But then again who would hire anyone my age?  I tried to occupy myself as best I could.  The old TV’s electronic hum was louder than the program volume, so I only tuned in for important events such as the news or football games. I went for walks when the weather allowed me (I didn’t possess a raincoat or even a heavy jacket. No room in the gym bag.) I went to the local library on a daily basis to read newspapers and in the process became part of the other library regulars: the retired, the book club ladies, the unemployed, the students, and the young mums with babies there for story time. A couple of characters, who looked more at home in an east end tavern than in the bright library lights, always sat at the rows of computers scouring the free internet at the same time I was there. Soon they began to nod a silent hello to me. I wasn’t sure this was a good thing. I borrowed a few books in the vain hope I might become possessed by someone else’s story other than my own, but I couldn’t concentrate and always returned them half read. I was able to take home DVDs, which was a godsend. Why rent when you get them for free? After borrowing all the recognizable English titles, about three a day, I progressed to foreign language films. That was a wonderful discovery. Movies I had never heard of kept me engrossed through the long empty hours.

Now the rooms of my life were as silent as this hospital ward at night. There was the dripping of a tap, the footsteps from upstairs, and the whirl of the mini-fridge as the motor kicked in periodically. I realized I would not speak to anybody for weeks. The path of my day consisted of going from the bed to the only chair in the second room, making sure I lowered my head to avoid the beam, work at the laptop, and then back to the bed that evening. Repeat. And repeat again. The most exciting event was the fresh brewed morning coffee. It was Nature’s reward just for getting out of bed. I would sometimes forget about the low ceiling. I bumped my head a number of times, not badly, but enough to swear out loud. The upstairs family likely heard the thump and the “f” words through the old floor boards and most probably remarked, even though I couldn’t hear them, “Mind your head!”

The nearby charity store was a distraction – it was the equivalent of window shopping with only pennies in the pocket. I wanted to see if they had winter coats and heavy boots in case I need to purchase them in a hurry. Things were not as cheap as I remember them. It used to be a dollar or two. Now it was twenty or thirty dollars for “fashionable” items. Browsing down the endless rows of clothes I wondered who once wore the “Northern Lightening” hockey jacket, or the paisley shirt that would have been chic in 1968.  And then something horrible happened. I recognized an item of clothing that I had once donated in more generous times. If I had the twenty bucks I would have bought it back. But I didn’t. It was a strange realization, as if the clockwork mechanism of the universe had clicked into place and I was its game piece.

That feeling of being a plaything of the Universe continued the following week, although this time in a far more positive way. While walking down the street with my mind elsewhere I heard the constant electronic beep of an ATM machine housed in the wall outside the Royal Bank. I walked past ignoring the noise, then stopped and thought about the sound. I had heard it many times before. It was the electronic beep the machine makes when it wants you to take your money. I doubled back and saw a $20 bill being offered to me by the machine. Obviously someone was in so much of a hurry they had snatched their cash but left the one bill. I couldn’t believe my luck. It was as if it was an offering from a higher power. If that wasn’t enough the following day I found another ten dollars dropped in the gutter, and the day after that five dollars on the side of the road. This was weird. Why was I suddenly the beneficiary of this money? You may go a whole year without finding even a dollar on the sidewalk, yet here I was $35 to the good in just three days. And that feeling of gifts from heaven continued. One day I was regretting not having any plastic containers for leftover food. I had been creative with the free simple plastic bags that normally hold supermarket fruit and vegetables, but it was getting silly trying to keep the cooked rice and peas in the bags. And then on one of my long walks through the deserted park I sat down on the bench I regularly used as the half way point of my strolls and there at the other end was an almost brand new grey plastic sandwich container – one of the more expensive kind with fold down flaps on all four sides to clamp down the lid and preserve the contents. Pride did not get in my way. I took it and washed it thoroughly once I returned to the basement, thankful for my gift.

Shopping became a competition. There were two supermarkets close by and I would visit both to see what items were the cheapest, and if I timed it right I could purchase meat at a reduced price if it was close to sell date, or, if I was really lucky, exotic products that hadn’t connected with the consumer’s shopping habits were marked at a clearance price and I could stock up. My menu was dictated by whatever was on sale that week. I became expert at not only living on five dollars a day, but preparing food with the limited utilities. The idea of writing a book entitled “Fifty Shades of Toaster Oven” crossed my mind. Other than the preparation of my meals, and the search for work, writing became my other regular task. I thought if no one will offer me a job maybe I could create one with my words.  I started all sorts of stories: adventure ones, personal ones, mad ones. But in reality I knew I would not finish them.

Then one day something unbelievable and totally random happened; something so unlikely I couldn’t make it up even for one of my stories. I was at the desk, early as ever, looking up at the basement window wondering what to write when there was an almighty great crash. A car, driven by a grandmother, had tried to turn into the daycare parking lot. Instead of putting her foot on the brake she hit the gas pedal. The car careened into the side of the house. It demolished the front porch. The woman was okay, but I wasn’t. The noise of the crash was so startling I jumped up, smacked my head on the low beam, and cracked open my skull. The landlady called an ambulance and I awoke to find myself here. Luckily it was nothing too serious. But it did get me out of the basement, and off the merry go round of strange events. While sitting here in this hospital bed a wonderful creative thought came to mind and clicked into place. Maybe I was the game piece of the Universe. Once again I found myself at my laptop, but this time I completed the story…and it’s here right in front of you…Mind Your Head!

 

Interned in Niagara Falls

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Niagara Falls is rich in history. The indigenous people’s stories of the “maid of the mist”, the battle of Lundy’s Lane during the 1812 war, the role the town played as a stop on the underground railroad for slaves escaping from the USA, the larger than life presence of Sir Harry Oakes (considered to be one of the British Empire’s richest man in the 1920’s) who, for many years, called this place home, and the recorded visits of many international dignitaries and sparkling celebrities, who, like the countless other tourists, wanted to witness the majesty of the mighty waterfalls. But, one day, while searching through the computers at the city’s main library, I accidentally discovered a little known fact that not only added to that historical list, but opened up a far larger issue of relatively unknown piece of Canadian history. During World War One, from 1914 to 1920, Canada created twenty-four internment camps across the country for the detention of enemy aliens, and Niagara Falls was the site of one of those camps.

I knew of the internment camps for Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, but the First World War? Never heard of it. And then I dug deeper into the on-line archives and this buried piece of thought-provoking history began to reveal itself.

Under the 1914 War Measures act those individuals who were considered enemy aliens (citizens originally from Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Ottoman Empire) were ordered to be registered and monitored. Over 80,000 persons were listed and ordered to report to police on a regular basis. 8,579 of those individuals were arrested (including over eighty children) and sent to camps across the country, to places like Spirit Lake in Quebec, the Citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, or Petawawa in Ontario. 3,138 were considered to be prisoners of war, the rest were civilians deemed to be a risk to the British Empire’s war effort.

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Many of them were Ukrainians. For the vast majority, their only “crime” was the place from which they came. Money and possessions, including land, were confiscated. For some, those things were never returned. Some were put to work in various areas, such as Banff national park, and paid 25 cents a day.

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(Internees at Vernon, B.C.)

Two of the twenty-four camps were border stations: Sault Saint-Marie and Niagara Falls. The Niagara Falls detention center was in the Armoury on Victoria Avenue (coincidentally just two hundred yards from the library). Today, the building is a private museum doing its best with limited funds and limited visitors to preserve and record military history. But, when the building was completed in 1911 it was a busy place. The two-storey military block house was designed to defend Niagara Falls and withstand any assault by an attacking force. It was home to the 44th Lincoln and Welland battalion whose role, among others, was to defend the Welland canal during WW1.

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But in December 1915 the building began double-duty as a prison. At its peak forty-two prisoners of war were housed there, along with twenty-one detention prisoners. It is believed that they were “accommodated” in the area which had been used as an indoor rifle range. The bland building must have been a crowded and smelly place, especially in winter, full of unusual energy and conversation. The soldiers must have been coming and going, doing their duties, while the detainees had to find ways to fill their empty days.

Few documents remain about this period. But there is one piece of historical fact that is well-recorded. In 1917, an Austrian, George Heinovitch, escaped from the Armoury through an open backdoor. He was later captured in Windsor, Ontario. But it cost the commanding officer who was on duty at the time, Lieutenant Chambers, his commission. For whatever reason, Chambers failed to check on the prisoners during his late evening shift. The internal military memos order the officer to be court-martialed. (He actually resigns before losing his commission.) The sergeant on duty that evening loses a stripe, and the corporal is reduced to a private.

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The Armoury ceased detention duties on August 31 1918, but some prisoners in other camps, such as Vernon, B.C. and Kapuskasing, Ontario, were not released until 1920 – over a year after the Great War ended.

It seems sadly ironic that these individuals, many of them escaping from tyrannical rule and oppressive conditions in their original Eastern European homes, would journey to Canada and then found themselves interned. And for those detained in the Armoury the majestic Niagara Falls, an attraction that inspires wellness and wonder, was just one mile away. The prisoners would see that fabled mist from the rushing water rising free in the air through the black iron bars of their basement windows. Possibly they might have also heard the calming white noise of the Falls on a cold, Canadian winter’s night, as the Niagara River rushes to the vastness of Lake Ontario.

For more information: http://www.internmentcanada.ca/

 

 

The Man Who Loved Niagara Falls

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Sinking of the S.S.Arctic

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(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

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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

 

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“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.