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Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Two Leaders, Two Styles

November 9th, 2010

Canada’s political leaders, as quoted recently in the foreign press:

Stephen Harper, as quoted in George Bush’s recent memoir [via the NY Times' Maureen Dowd]:

[Bush] writes of a visit to Russia, when Putin showed him his black Labrador, Koni. “Bigger, stronger, and faster than Barney,” Putin bragged.

Later, when W. recounted this to Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister, Harper drolly noted, “You’re lucky he only showed you his dog.”

Michael Ignatieff, as quoted in a recent collection of Bruce Chatwin’s letters [via William Dalrymple in the Sunday Times]:

After visiting Chatwin near the end when his hypomania was at its peak, Ignatieff wrote a loving farewell note about a visit which left him, he said,

“full of dark and strange thoughts. You seemed in a realm of exultation – extreme physical dilapidation seems to have sent you shooting up into the sky with the angels . . . Over it all hung an unmistakable air of Nunc Dimittis . . . It is quite possible that you experience this apparent frenzy from inside some deep calm . . . But those who love you – and see only the outside – see someone haunted and in breathless pursuit. I’m not sure it is among the offices of friendship to convey my sense of foreboding and disquiet at how I saw you. I may just be expressing a friend’s regret at losing you to a great wave of conviction, to some gust of certainty, that leaves me here, rooted to the spot and you carried far away. In which case, I can only wave you onto your journey.”

Boringside

October 22nd, 2010

R.B. Fleming’s recent life of Peter Gzowski may not be the worst biography I have ever read. It is, nevertheless, quite bad.

Fleming manages to write with clarity about Peter Gzowski, a titan of Canadian journalism and radio, and his archival research has been prodigious. He appears to have read every article (no matter how insignificant), watched every TV special (no matter how cringe-inducing), and listened to every radio program (almost all of which were flawless) that Gzowski was ever involved with. And he has unearthed something previously unknown about Gzowski’s personal life: In the 1960s, married with children, Gzowski fathered a child with another woman.

But here is where the problems begin. Rather than integrate the story of Gzowski’s illegitimate son into the general biographical narrative, Fleming sequesters it in a separate, final chapter. In doing so, of course, he created the journalistic splash he was aiming for. But he also manages to draw attention to how devoid of personal insight the rest of his book is.

Consider: In the larger sweep of Gzowski’s life, the story of his secret child has little significance. Gzowski remained friends with the boy’s mother and supported her, yet he rarely saw the child as a boy, and never visited his grandchild later. But in areas that dominated Gzowski’s life, Fleming is virtually silent. Gzowski’s first wife, Jennie Lissaman, is little more than a shadow in Fleming’s book, her presence reduced to the woman who bore Gzowski’s children and cooked his meals. There is little description of what Peter might have found attractive about her, what they might have found in common, how tensions arose in their relationship, why they divorced when they did. While Gzowski’s illegitimate child gets an entire chapter, his five children from Jennie are barely mentioned. Some get no more mention than a listing of their names and the year they were born.

The reasons for this perverse approach to Gzowski’s personal life are obvious: Fleming was unable to gain the confidence of the Gzowski family, who refused to cooperate with his project. I think this was a mistake on the family’s part, though understandable. Their misgivings about Fleming’s professionalism have been amply borne out.

Even worse is the material that Fleming has stuffed into the gaping hole left by Gzowski’s absent family. Instead of narrative, we get entire chapters filled with laundry lists of articles he wrote or edited for various publications. Gzowski might have been the terrific print journalist Fleming claims he is, but you’d never know from this book. Each and every piece of published writing Gzowski came into contact with – no matter how trivial or dated – is given the “Fleming treatment”: a one or two-sentence summary that makes little effort to sift, evaluate or contextualize.

What little analysis exists suffers from a common editor’s complaint: telling rather than showing. According to Fleming, Gzowski was a great editor who pushed his writers in unexpected directions and improved their skills. Is this true? Well, Fleming has managed to string together a series of quotations from friends and colleagues who repeat this point, sometimes almost verbatim. But not one of them offers a concrete example or anecdote to actually illustrate it.

When anecdotes do appear in the book, they are almost invariably tedious or irrelevant. One of the longest involves a game of golf, where Gzowski was apparently competitive and prone to stretching the rules in his favour. In my experience, that description covers almost every male golfer I’ve come into contact with. Fleming apparently believes it reveals something of the “dark” side to Gzowski, an allegedly surly character and serial exaggerator. (On this last point, which is a recurrent theme in Fleming’s book, the author dwells at greatest length on the various permutations and implausibilities of Gzowski’s childhood memories. Aren’t childhood memories – by their very nature – unreliable? Is this really news?)

And yet despite the book’s many flaws, something of Gzowski’s magical, melancholy character comes through, just as it did for years over the airwaves. It’s a shame that a man who meant so much to millions of Canadians was cursed with such a pedestrian biographer.

Promo-Goof

April 4th, 2008

The slow, sad decline of CBC Radio 2 continues apace, and has been well reported. So it might seem just a little petty to complain about something as insignificant as the official “voice” of the radio: “Promo-boy.” The successor to the the widely despised “promo-girl,” “promo-boy” is unique in that he has defaced not only Radio 1, but the previously sacrosanct confines of Radio 2, with his inane commentary and irritating diction.

Here’s a sample of his promo spots for upcoming programs: One performer’s “fresh style is always original.” Another performer’s “signature vulnerable performances are punctuated by driving rhythms.” But an absolute gem was dispensed just a couple days ago in a promo spot for a concert by Marie-Jo Thériault. It’s a beaut, complete with redundancies, plenty of meaningless descriptive phrases, and even a problem with verb conjugation at the end. Take 20 seconds out of your day and have a listen:

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Her passion moves an audience with genuine emotion. Her musical vision is swift, deep, and transports the listener. And, her Acadian roots not only define her music, but defines her as an artist. She’s Marie-Jo Thériault, on the next Canada Live.

Naomi KleinAbu Ghraib got you down? Massacres in Falluja making you feel blue? Try a drop or two of Bach Rescue Remedy–it’s recommended by none other than Naomi Klein! After the release of the Abu Ghraib photos, she confesses that she felt a little off-kilter. “It was scary to be a Westerner,” she tells a Styles reporter in today’s New York Times. “A lot of reporters were on Valium.”

Klein opted for something more “homeopathic” to clear up her condition. Despite her endorsement, unfortunately, Klein insists that she has “no real sense that [the product] works. I think of it like a kind of talisman. I like the old-fashioned country-doctor packaging.”

Garth Turner has a well-earned reputation as an independent-minded Member of Parliament. I voted Conservative in the last election largely because of his support for gay marriage. I even joined the Conservative Party to help defend him against a nomination challenge. (After Stephen Harper turfed him out of caucus last year, I promptly tore up my membership card.)

He is sanctimonious and self-aggrandizing, but what politician isn't?

But beginning with his ill-advised decision to join the Liberal Party — after criticizing other MPs for switching party allegiance — Turner has gradually shed his reputation as an honorable and principled political actor. The last straw, for me, was this report from a couple days ago, on his current trip out west.

In Edmonton there was a top-of-the-lung rant by a pesky senior, decrying all things Conservative; a dire prediction I ‘ll be tossed out of the Liberal party by Stephane Dion within 30 months for my unique pain-in-the-ass qualities; an anti-immigrant tirade that almost caused a dustup in the audience; several pleas that oil come second to the environment; and the intervention by a pack of young Liberals who showed up to argue Nine Eleven was an inside job, and Canada is morally bankrupt to be fighting George Bush’s illegal war in Afghanistan.

Actually, that last group was persuasive. Not that I buy the conspiracy theory – not yet, anyway. But I was struck by their fervour and commitment. They loaded me up with literature and CDs, and made me promise I would blog about this. And I did.

There are two things that struck me about this passage. First of all, 9-11 conspiracy theories are apparently considered unremarkable in the Liberal Party. It's one thing for individual Liberals to quietly grumble such nonsense among friends; it's quite another for a "pack" of them to feel comfortable in publicly haranguing an MP on the subject. This should be national news, IMHO.

Second, and most depressing, is Turner's cowardice. He's not quite ready to don the tin-foil hat ("not yet, anyway"), but gosh those boys were "persuasive."

What an ass.

Repetitive. And Repetitious.

August 9th, 2007

Warren Kinsella in today's National Post:

Graffiti is ubiquitous; it's everywhere.

And one paragraph later, in case you didn't get it:

It's all over the place. . . . 

Kinsella is always tiresome. Tedious too.

Trash Talking

August 1st, 2007

Can reading a book rot your brains? Last week's article in the New York Times about the children's book series, Junie B. Jones, got me thinking.

The journalist does a good job of drawing the controversy over the books to battles over phonics and "whole language." And her summary of Junie B. Jones' voice is almost perfect:

And though she is the narrator of the stories, she struggles with grammar. Her adverbs lack the suffix “ly”; subject and object pronouns give her problems, as do possessives; she usually isn’t able to conjugate irregular past tense verbs; and words like funnest and beautifuller are the mainstays of her vocabulary.

I say "almost perfect" because the problem with the books isn't that Junie "struggles with grammar." It's that she doesn't struggle with grammar. Her grammar is, in fact, as strict and rule-bound as a mathematical equation. Unlike most children, in fact, Junie doesn't slip up with irregular verbs — she conjugates them uniformly incorrectly. Junie's solecisms don't bother me most — it's her lack of imagination and literal adherence to a small set of rules. She doesn't sound like a child to me — she sounds like a robot.

What makes this particularly problematic is that the books are written in the first person. The only voice the reader ever gets is Junie B. Jones's voice. There is no contrasting 3rd-person narrator (as in Winnie the Pooh, for instance) who might alert children to the fact that Junie isn't speaking correctly.

The author's comparison of her book with Huckleberry Finn might be legitimate, except for one thing. Huck Finn isn't pitched at the level of novice readers who are still struggling with the elements of proper grammar.

Who’s your doggy?

October 20th, 2006

According to today's Toronto Star,

Liberals are calling for an apology from Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, for allegedly referring to Belinda Stronach, the Aurora MP and his former girlfriend, as a dog.

As a historical service, I thought I'd offer a brief — and far from exhaustive — sampling of canine-themed insults from recent days in the House of Commons.

Mr. Michel Guimond (Beauport—Montmorency—Orléans, BQ):

Mr. Speaker, just before beginning, could you ask the chihuahua for Bourassa to do his barking outside the House? I am utterly fed up. ….

I did not call the hon. member for Bourassa a dog, I called him a chihuahua. There is a difference.

Some hon. members: Ha, ha.

Mr. Michel Guimond: A chihuahua is a small dog that yaps a lot but does not bite.

Some hon. members: Ha, ha.

Source: Hansard, December 5, 1997 

Mr. Lynn Myers (Waterloo—Wellington, Lib.): I was very pleased to be called “a young pup” by [Scott Brison]; far better a young pup than an old dog. The Conservatives are nothing under Joe Clark than an old dog with no teeth.

Source: Hansard, March 30, 2000

    Mr. Monte Solberg (Medicine Hat, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the NDP tail is wagging the Liberal dog.

    How incredible that Liberal cabinet ministers are now lobbying NDP members to get things included in the new budget. I guess that Liberal dog must be a lapdog.

    The finance minister may be getting really good at retrieving the NDP leader's slippers, but he is irrelevant as a minister. When will he resign?

    Some hon. members: Hear, hear!

Source: Hansard, May 4, 2005

And finally, Peter MacKay again, this time directing his canine contempt at a man, Ralph Goodale, Liberal Minister of Finance:

Mr. Peter MacKay: Ralph [Goodale, Liberal Minister of Finance] the wonder invisible dog swallowed himself whole and committed to letting the NDP set the stage for the budget ….

Hansard, Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Strangely, not one of these exchanges provoked a front page story in the Star.

Few ideas arouse the righteous indignation of conservatives more than the notion of "moral equivalence." In fact, three weeks ago, the National Post's Comment pages managing editor, Jonathan Kay, explicitly stated that any article that "draws a moral equivalence between terrorists and the nations that fight them," would be"rejected out of hand" by the newspaper.

So it was with some surprise that I saw this morning's Op-Ed, a rousing paean to the creative work and moral message of Dr. Seuss, composed by none other than Jonathan Kay himself.

[Dr. Seuss's] best works provide … a sense of true drama (think of Horton the Elephant's efforts to save his flea-sized colony) — and even a valuable moral. The life lessons I learned from Dr. Seuss stuck with me because they always came embedded in an unforgettable graphic panel …

Now I'm as big a fan of Dr. Seuss's work as anyone, and I largely agree with Kay's assessment. But I find it passing strange that Kay avoided addressing the philosophical heart of Seuss's works: moral equivalence. There are countless examples of this. Star-bellied Sneetches are equivalent to those who have "none upon thars." The north-going Zaks and south-going Zaks mindlessly cleave to their petty differences. And finally, in the Butter Battle Book (1984), which Seuss himself reportedly considered his finest, Yooks and Zooks end up in a pitched arms race threatening the very extinction of their species, over the most laughable difference:

"It's high time that you knew," the old Yook grandfather tells his grandson, "of the terribly horrible things that Zooks do."

"In every Zook house and in every Zook town
every Zook eats his bread
with the butter side down!

"But we Yooks, as you know,
when we breakfast or sup,
spread our bread," Grandpa said,
"with the butter side up.
That's the right, honest way!"

The parallels with the Cold War — or at least how Ted Geisel viewed the Cold War — are transparent.

One thing is certain: Dr Seuss would never have been published on the Post's opinion pages.

[I published this in the March 2006 Playbill of the San Francisco Orchestra.]

Pity the ghost of Dmitri Shostakovich. Thirty years after his death, it seems his soul will never be allowed to rest in peace. Hounded by Stalinist commissars during his lifetime, ridiculed by Western modernists to this day, Shostakovich remains one of the twentieth century's most embattled cultural figures.

Mercifully, things look rather different on today's stages. Had he lived to his 100th birthday this year, Shostakovich might have allowed himself one of his characteristic wincing smiles. For his musical opponents have been all but vanquished in the concert hall. Shostakovich reigns supreme.

Not everyone is pleased with this turn of events. Read the rest of this entry »