Tag Archives: Rod Mickleburgh

His Bob-ness joins Yeats, Beckett, and Eliot

ROD MICKLEBURGH
October 15, 2016

In the winter of 1990, I waited with a handful of reporters and photographers in a grand salon of the Palais-Royal in Paris for Bob Dylan. More than 25 years ahead of the Nobel Prize people, the French had decided that Dylan’s lyrical prowess was worthy of the country’s highest cultural honour, Commandeur dans l’ Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. T.S. Eliot was one of the first to receive the award in 1960. Borges followed in 1962. And now, following in the footsteps of Sean Connery (1987), it was Bob’s turn.

Photo by Lucie McNeill

Photo by Lucie McNeill

Finally, the gilded, ceiling-high white doors opened, and there he was, ambling into the opulent room, followed by France’s flamboyant minister of culture at the time, Jack Lang. He was wearing a snazzy, tux-like black jacket over a sharp white shirt, sleek dark pants and, I couldn’t help noticing, cowboy boots. As flashbulbs went off, Dylan seemed like a deer caught in the headlights. He looked haggard, eyes half open, as if he’d just been roused from bed, without a shower and“ one more cup of coffee before I go”. We were separated only by a low velvet rope. I could have reached out and touched him.

It was almost unnerving, being so close to the figure who’d been my hero and constant companion since high school, when I put on my father’s copy of Another Side of Bob Dylan for the second time, and began listening to the lyrics. (The first time I thought what I heard was a joke…)

As Jack Lang spoke briefly about Dylan’s music and “poésie”, Bob rocked nervously side to side, glancing about, twitching. He appeared “lost in Juarez” or “old Honolulu, San Francisco, Ashtabula”, an ordeal merely to remain still. Lang then reached into his pocket for the illustrious medallion and closed in to affix it around his neck. Dylan stiffened, as the Culture Minister embraced him on both sides of his cheeks in that winning Gallic manner. Awkwardly, Dylan took out a crumpled piece of paper, and muttered: “Mille mercis.” Seemingly relieved that was over, he said in English, a bit more audibly, with his hand over his heart: “A thousand thank you’s.” For the first time, he actually smiled. Briefly. Dylan stayed another 30 seconds or so for the photographers (“Bob! Bob…!”) and poof, he was gone. The Jokerman had made his escape.

He’d been before us no more than five minutes. As is almost everything about Dylan, the entire experience was surreal. One can expect something just as strange IF he appears before the Swedish Academy to pocket the Nobel Prize for Literature on Dec. 10. There’s no guarantee he will show up at all.  The night the Prize was announced, Dylan’s “never-ending tour” played, appropriately, Las Vegas. (On Oct. 30, he’ll be in Paducah.) True to form, he said not a word to the audience about anything, least of all the astounding recognition of his life’s work. And so far, not even an official statement. Is anyone surprised? If there is one constant of Bob’s oddball, reclusive life, it’s this. He has remained, from the beginning, a contrarian. As University of Toronto literature teacher Ira Wells wrote perceptively in the Globe and Mail: “It’s hard to think of an artist who has worked harder, or more consistently over a span of decades, to alienate his own fan base.” Like a true artist, and I am one of those who consider Dylan the Shakespeare of our age, he lets his work speak for itself. And what a legacy it is.

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People who criticize the Nobel Prize going to “a songwriter”, miss the point. Dylan is so much more than that. His vision and lyricism over more than 50 years is out there all by itself. It goes far beyond his terrific protest songs and mind-bending rock canticles of the 1960’s. There is a reason so many books are written about Dylan by serious literary critics. For all the greatness of Bowie and Prince and Springsteen, that doesn’t happen with their music, outstanding as it is. Bob Dylan has treasured words all his life. He uses them in a way no songwriter has, before or since. (Leonard Cohen comes close, but lovely Leonard has never come close to the over-arching influence of Dylan. They are mutual admirers of each other, by the way.) Bob’s mystifying muse continues to drive him forward. The Nobel Prize is for an exceptional body of work, not for a bunch of good songs. In the words of the Academy, it went to Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. I couldn’t be happier over their decision.

A final note. While dismissed by many who just like his “old stuff”, Dylan’s output following his lost decade of the 1980’s is exceptionally rich and rewarding, containing some of his best songs. But they are no longer anthems of a generation. They don’t impact society the way Dylan did all those years ago. So they tend not be listened to all that much. And, as always, some are put off by his voice, now in heavy croak mode. But Dylan still knows how to wind it around his consistently-brilliant, deep lyrics. Plus, his veteran band fits him like a glove. Start with the under-rated Oh Mercy (1989), all the way to Modern Times, released in 2006 when Bob was 65, which I would put in the top five among all his albums. I could go on and on.

Never expect the expected from Bob. Frank Sinatra covers, anyone? As he sang more than 50 years ago:

 And if my thought dreams could be seen

They’d probably put my head in a guillotine/

But it’s alright, Ma, it’s life, and life only.

A few years ago, I put together my list of Dylan’s Top 100 Songs (reduced a bit). It wasn’t easy. So many favourites didn’t even make the cut. Imagine, not just a few great songs, but more than a hundred. Anyway, here it is, with selections more  or less chronological. Enjoy and nitpick away.

Song to Woody.    He Was a Friend of Mine.    Who Killed Davey Moore?

John Brown.    Lay Down Your Weary Tune.    Blowin’ in the Wind.

Girl from the North Country.    Masters of War.    A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.    Farewell, Angelina.    Tomorrow Is a Long Time.

The Times They Are A-Changin’.    The Ballad of Hollis Brown.    When the Ship Comes In.

Boots of Spanish Leather.    With God on Our Side.    One Too Many Mornings.

The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.    Chimes of Freedom.    It Ain’t Me Babe.

To Ramona.    My Back Pages.    Subterranean Homesick Blues.    She Belongs to Me.

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.    Maggie’s Farm.

Love Minus Zero/No Limit.     Mr. Tambourine Man.    It’s All Right, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)

Gates of Eden.    Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream.    It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.

Like a Rolling Stone.    Queen Jane Approximately.    Ballad of a Thin Man.

Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.    Desolation Row.    Visions of Johanna.

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.    I Shall Be Released.    All Along the Watchtower.

I Dreamed I Saw Saint Augustine.    I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.    I Threw It All Away.

Day of the Locusts.    Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door.    Forever Young.

On a Night Like This.    Simple Twist of Fate.    Shelter From the Storm.

If You See Her, Say Hello.    Tangled Up in Blue.

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.    Hurricane.    Romance in Durango.

Black Diamond Bay.    Where Are You Tonight (Journey Through Dark Heat).

Gotta Serve Somebody.    Slow Train.     I Believe in You.    Every Grain of Sand.

Angelina.    Blind Willie McTell.    I and I.    Jokerman.    Licence to Kill.

When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky.    Dark Eyes.    Political World.

Everything is Broken.    Man in the Long Black Coat.    Most of the Time (bootleg version).

What Was It You Wanted?    Series of Dreams.    Tryin’ to Get to Heaven.    Highlands.

Not Dark Yet.    Cold Irons Bound.    Mississippi (first bootleg version).

High Water (for Charley Paton).    Things Have Changed.    Nettie Moore.

Workingman’s Blues #2.    The Levee’s Gonna Break.    Ain’t Talkin’.

Thunder on the Mountain. Dignity.    Red River Shore.    Huck’s Tune.

Tell Ol’ Bill.    ‘Cross the Green Mountain.    It’s All Good.    Titanic.

Copyright Rod Mickleburgh 2016

You might also wish to read these stories on F&O:

No, Bob Dylan isn’t the first lyricist to win the Nobel, by Alex Lubet

A Bengali literary giant who probably wrote even more songs preceded Dylan’s win by over a century. Rabindranath Tagore, a wildly talented Indian poet, painter and musician, took the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913.

Are Bob Dylan’s songs “Literature?” by David McCooey

Dylan’s Nobel Prize shows up what the Swedish Academy has so far ignored in their award system: film, popular music, and the emerging forms of digital storytelling. Perhaps what this Nobel tells us more than anything is that “literature” or “poetry” are categories of our own making. To move beyond the page seems long overdue.

~~~

Rod Mickleburgh F&ORod Mickleburgh has been a journalist for more than 40 years, with stops just about everywhere, from Penticton to Paris to Peking. Managed a few awards and nominations along the way, but highlight was co-winning Canada’s Michener Award with my highly-esteemed Globe and Mail colleague, Andre Picard, for our coverage of Canada’s tainted blood scandal. Left the Globe, my reporting home for more than 22 years, in the summer of 2013. Have my name on two books: Rare Courage, containing first person-accounts from 20 veterans of World War Two, and The Art of the Impossible, a tale of the wild and wooly 39 months of British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government led by Dave Barrett. Co-authored with Geoff Meggs, The Art of the Impossible won the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction at the 2013 British Columbia Book Awards. Currently investigating time management, without regular deadlines. Visit Rod Mickleburgh’s WordPress site, Mickleblog.  His previous piece on F&O was “Feeling the Bern.” Excerpt:

The 74-year old, white-haired politician advanced to the podium, and the roof nearly came off the Hudson’s Bay High School gymnasium. No wonder. For nearly four hours, thousands of us had been standing in line, braving a cold, miserable rain, without even knowing whether we would be among the 5,000 or so lucky enough to make it inside. As the cheers continued to cascade down from the packed, rickety benches of the high school gym, Bernie Sanders leaned forward and shouted in his hoarse, Brooklynese. “All I can say is: WHOA!”

 

~~~

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Muhammad Ali: Remembering when Clay/Ali bestrode the world

Muhammad Ali trains at his retreat in Owigsburg, Pennsylvania, August 27, 1974 for his fight against George Foreman in Zaire. Action Images / MSI/File Photo

Muhammad Ali trains at his retreat in Owigsburg, Pennsylvania, August 27, 1974 for his fight against George Foreman in Zaire. Action Images / MSI/File Photo

By ROD MICKLEBURGH
May 18, 2016

A tough week for us sports fans of another generation. Losing two great heroes of our youth: Muhammad Ali, and now, Gordie Howe (he never changed his name to Gordon..). This is about the champ.

It’s been said many, many times, but it remains true. Never again will we see the likes of Muhammad Ali. “For all you kids out there”, it’s difficult to convey just how dominant a figure he was during those first 20 years he reigned as by far the most beloved and admired athlete in the world. Evidence of his unsurpassed skill and courage in the rink are easily found on YouTube. And most accounts written after Ali’s death relate in great detail his bold, in-your-face defiance of white America. He stuck it to “the man’, as few had before, with his loudly-proclaimed conversion to the radical Black Muslims, his name change from Cassius Clay to (gasp) Muhammad Ali, announced while standing beside Malcolm X (another gasp), and most of all, his willingness to go to jail rather than be sent to Vietnam to kill people “who never called me nigger”.

Still, it’s not really possible to capture just what it was like to actually experience those years, when Clay/Ali bestrode the world like the proverbial colossus. With his flashing fists, dancing feet and outrageous, versified braggadocio, he opened up the narrow, closed confines of boxing to the great beyond, as no one had before. The charged anticipation for every one of his big fights was unsurpassed. It was as if a cloak had been thrown over everything else going on, except for Ali’s showdowns against Sonny Liston, or Joe Frazier, or George Foreman. Everyone listened, watched on big pay-for-view screens, or followed round-by-round dispatches sent out by the wire services. Long before social media, we were a global Ali community.

Nor can one quantify the extent of outrage and villification that spewed down on Ali when he turned his back on everything American. Even those who loved him as a boxer were confused by his decision to join the Black Muslims, an extremist, black separatist group led by the shadowy Elijah Muhammad, who was a long way from Martin Luther King. Yet, with everything to lose, and it did cost him big, Ali stood up for his rights as a black man, loudly and unabashedly, and was hated for it. No wonder he feared for his life.

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The famous cover from Esquire.

It was only after he returned to the ring, three and a half years after his title was taken away for refusing induction into the armed forces, that sentiment began to soften. He was now admired, rather than loathed, for remaining true to his convictions, and for his renewed prowess in the ring. No longer able to float like a butterfly and sting like bee, he harnessed raw courage, tactical brilliance, and a frightening ability to take a punch that almost certainly contributed to the Parkinson’s Disease that finally silenced him to claim the heavyweight crown two more times. From the dusty villages of Africa, to the streets of Iraq, to the halls of presidents, he was celebrated and loved. It’s a lesser world without him, even reduced as he was over the years by the relentless scourge of his illness.

I saw Muhammad Ali, once. It was in Pyongyang in 1995, at the strangest event I’ve ever been at. For reasons known only to its alien-like leaders, the crackpot regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea staged a series of professional wrestling bouts before upwards of 150,000 bewildered North Koreans at the city’s massive public stadium. They called it the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace. Participants were all from the Japanese wrestling circuit. They included the usual gang of archetypal villains in evil, spiked costumes, tough-looking women with blue hair, Canadian Chris Benoit, the legendary Ric Flair and Antonio Inoki, the most famous grappler in Japan.

The matches took place in almost total silence, as spectators had no idea what to make of competitors slamming their opponents’ head into ring posts, jumping on them from the top of the ropes, or hurling them out of the ring and stomping on them. The only hook for the absurd event seemed to be a tenuous connection between North Korea and Antonio Inoki. His early mentor was Rikidozan, founder of professional wrestling in Japan, who happened to have been born in what became North Korea. That was enough for Rikidozan to qualify as a national hero and for the wacky poobahs of DPRK to stage an entire festival around the first showdown beween Ric Flair and Inoki. Most of the Beijing press corps, complete with cameras, microphones and tape recorders, were among the select group of “tourists” invited to attend.

Just when I thought Wrestling Night in Pyongyang couldn’t get any more bizarre, they announced the presence of Muhammad Ali. But of course. Wasn’t he the world’s greatest athlete, North Korea the world’s greatest country, and the Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace the world’s greatest festival? To the organizers, it made perfect sense. Besides, Ali had once fought Inoki, himself. In the most ridiculous match of all time, Inoki spent all 15 rounds on the mat trying to kick his opponent’s legs, while Ali threw a grand total of six punches. You can look it up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3vOssizwW4

Anyway, there was Ali, unmistakeable in the stands. The crowd applauded politely, not quite sure how to greet a representative of the “Yankee wolf”, as English phrase books in North Korea labeled the USA. The champ half stood up and gave a half wave. Even from far away, I was thrilled.

All of which is a long-winded introduction to something I wrote a couple of years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Ali first great victory, his upset over the feared Sonny Liston to give him his first heavyweight championship. Looking back, I still find it hard to believe someone as wonderful and outlandish as Muhammad Ali really existed. As my original blog confesses, however, I was one of Cassius Clay’s many early doubters, a belief that socked me right in the wallet. But I was so spurred by the magnitude of his triumph that I tried a bit of Clay doggerel, myself, for the school yearbook. May you survive it, and may Muhammad Ali be sitting on the right hand of the black God he worshipped. We will never forget him.

SONNY LISTON OWES ME BIG

Fifty years ago today, I turned on the radio, smug in the belief that this was going to be the easiest dollar I ever made. That brash, upstart, crazy Cassius Clay was finally going to get his long overdue comeuppance, his taunts and boasts rammed down that big throat of his by the meanest, scariest fighter who ever lived, Sonny “The Bear” Liston.

An ex-con whose baleful scare frightened even hardened sportswriters was violence personified in the ring, Liston had twice taken on the skilled, much-loved former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson. Patterson didn’t make it past the first round in either fight, hammered early to the canvas both times by Liston’s murderous fists. Few fighters dared to face him, despite the big payday of a heavyweight championship match.

Not so, Cassius Clay (the “slave name” that he later changed to Muhammad Ali….you may have heard of him…). Just 22, with thefastest mouth in showbiz but a spotty  record of dispatching ho-hum opponents, Clay had the audacity to challenge the seemingly invincible  Liston.  Not only that, he openly and repeatedly taunted Liston, even yelling at him outside his house in the middle of the night. An even-keel Liston was frightening, enough. Now, the Louisville Lip had made him mad. Yikes.

Some worried Clay might not even survive the fight, and just about everyone expected Liston to pulverize him in short order. Everyone, that is, except my friend Gary Toporoski, a bit of a loud-mouth in his own right. (sorry, Gary…). “Topper” was completely convinced Cassius Clay really was “gonna whup that big ugly bear”.  Why? Well, it seems he had seen Cassius Clay’s guest appearance on a CFTO sports show, and Clay started the show by flicking an array of lightening jabs at the camera.  “He’s sooo fast,” said my enthralled Newmarket High School friend. “There’s no way Liston can beat him. He’s too slow.”

I told him he was nuts. We decided to bet on the fight, something I’d never done before. In fact, I was so confident Liston would prevail, I even gave Toporoski the going 7-1 odds. His dollar against my seven.  I had already decided to treat myself to a hamburger at the Newmarket Grill with my big winnings. Instead, of course, I ate crow.

With a heavy but wiser heart, I handed Gary seven smackers (a lot of money in them there daze) at school the next day. He only said “I told you so” about 84 times. I’ve never bet on a match since.

Months later, still stung, I burst forward into doggerel for the 1964 school yearbook. Move over, Longfellow.

THE INCREDIBLE UPSET

The Bear was ugly, mean and detested.

Only once in a fight had he been been bested.

The Louisville Lip had no more chance

To whip the Bear than the Premier of France.

 

But came that decisive night in Miami,

Cassisus Clay had some sort of whammy.

For he blasted the myth that the Bear was too strong.

He proved he could box, as well as talk long.

 

In the fifth, when not a thing could he see,

He displayed some footwork that baffled Sonny.

With a continual jab and by dancing around,

The man with the mouth survived that tough round.

The Bear was a Cub by the end of round six.

The fans in the Hall began to yell “Fix!”.

For he threw in the towel to the man he despised,

And Cassius Clay had our opinions revised.

 

He floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

His speed had conquered the ferocious Sonny.

Clay’s gift of the gab was far from the latest,

But who could deny that he was “the greatest”?

— Montana Worthlesswords (c’est moi)

Here’s the famous fight that made losers out of both Sonny Liston and me.

Copyright Rod Mickleburgh 2016

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The coffin of late boxing champion Muhammad Ali arrives for a jenazah, an Islamic funeral prayer, in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The coffin of late boxing champion Muhammad Ali arrives for a jenazah, an Islamic funeral prayer, in Louisville, Kentucky, U.S. June 9, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

MUHAMMAD ALI: the final goodbye to “The Greatest,” by Nick Carey and Steve Bittenbender

Fans chanting “Ali!” and throwing flowers lined the streets of Muhammad Ali’s hometown in Kentucky on June 10 for a funeral procession to celebrate the boxing champion who jolted America with his showmanship and won worldwide admiration as a man of principle.

What Muhammad Ali, conscientous-objector, taught me, by Penney Kome, Over Easy column

As a young teen studying at the Illinois School of Ballet, I didn’t follow sports much, which is probably why I didn’t recognize the big man right away.  The top of my head came to his elbow. My dad was 6’2″, but this guy was really big. A block away, it hit me: I’d just crossed paths with champion boxer Muhammad Ali.

~~~

Rod Mickleburgh F&ORod Mickleburgh has been a journalist for more than 40 years, with stops just about everywhere, from Penticton to Paris to Peking. Managed a few awards and nominations along the way, but highlight was co-winning Canada’s Michener Award with my highly-esteemed Globe and Mail colleague, Andre Picard, for our coverage of Canada’s tainted blood scandal. Left the Globe, my reporting home for more than 22 years, in the summer of 2013. Have my name on two books: Rare Courage, containing first person-accounts from 20 veterans of World War Two, and The Art of the Impossible, a tale of the wild and wooly 39 months of British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government led by Dave Barrett. Co-authored with Geoff Meggs, The Art of the Impossible won the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction at the 2013 British Columbia Book Awards. Currently investigating time management, without regular deadlines. Visit Rod Mickleburgh’s WordPress site, Mickleblog.

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

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The Story of the Komagatu Maru

At long last, a formal apology was delivered in the House of Commons for Canada’s racist behaviour in its shameful treatment of Sikh passengers aboard the Komagata Maru who had the effrontery to seek immigration to the West Coast more than a hundred years ago. Not only were they denied entry, they were subjected to two months of exceptionally inhumane treatment by unflinching immigration officers. While many now know the basics of the ill-fated voyage, the story has many elements that are less well known. I am indebted to Hugh Johnston and his definitive book, The Voyage of the Komagata Maru.

By ROD MICKLEBURGH
May 18, 2016

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Just days before the outbreak of World War I, the most direct challenge to Canada’s racist, anti-Asian immigration policies was about to come to a potentially bloody end in the waters of Burrard Inlet. Thousands of Vancouverites lined the waterfront to watch, while dozens of small boats bobbed about offshore for a ringside view. All eyes focused on the Komagata Maru, an ungainly Japanese merchant ship carrying more than 350 hungry and increasingly desperate immigrant hopefuls from India, and the HMCS Rainbow, the only seaworthy vessel in the Canadian Navy.

The cruiser had been dispatched, after the predominantly Sikh passengers resisted a deportation order by bombarding police trying to board their ship with rocks, bricks and other debris. As the Rainbow trained its guns on the Komagata Maru, those on board bolstered their spirits with patriotic war songs from their Punjabi homeland and prepared for further battle. They vowed to fight to the end. The presence of 200 armed militia gathered on the pier and 35 riflemen aboard a nearby police tug added to the tension.

By then a familiar sight to Vancouverites, the Komagata Maru had been marooned in the harbour for two months by a nasty, hard-boiled immigration agent, Malcolm Reid. An implicit believer in a “white Canada”, Reid took the law into his own hands to ensure not a single immigrant made it to shore. In this, he was actively assisted by local Conservative MP and white supremacist, Henry Herbert Stevens. Now, Reid had a deportation order to force the ship back to Asia. Except those on board were not prepared to leave. The looming showdown and potential of armed conflict so close to shore was a magnet for the people of Vancouver. As chronicler Hugh Johnston put it: “The city had taken the day off to see the show.”

UnknownThe saga of the Komagata Maru was yet another dark chapter in Canada’s racist past. A complex tale, with many twists and turns, multiple agendas and bitter factionalism, the basic issue was nevertheless straightforward. Among a series of race-based policies to curtail Asian immigration, Canada imposed its harshest restrictions on people from India. Orders-in-council in 1908 brought a complete halt to an immigration flow that had seen 2,500 Indians come to B.C. in less than five years. Though newspapers universally labelled them “Hindus”, almost all were Sikhs from rural Punjab. They proved tough, able workers, finding jobs mostly in logging and sawmills. At the same time, they suffered the same prejudice, harassment and white hysteria as immigrants from China and Japan.

Unlike the Chinese and Japanese, however, who mostly suffered in silence, those from India loudly protested the government’s immigration restrictions.

Arguing they had the same rights as all British subjects, they fought numerous and sometimes successful battles in the courts. In 1914, they took the government head on with the arrival of the Komagata Maru. Organized by Gurdit Singh, an ultra-confident Sikh businessman, the ship and its passengers defied the government’s ordinance that barred Indian immigrants from landing in Canada unless they came on a direct journey from India. No such passage existed. Singh boldly picked up passengers in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Yokohama, before heading to to Vancouver. His aim was to test the ban in court, confident their rights as British subjects would be upheld.

Sikhs_aboard_Komagata_MaruWhen the ship arrived on May 23, however, Reid refused to allow it to dock. He, too, had a goal: force the Komagata Maru back to Asia, if he could, without a court hearing. To that end, he kept the passengers imprisoned, their ship circled day and night by armed patrol launches. Ignoring instructions from faraway superiors in Ottawa, he stretched normally swift procedures into weeks. And periodically, he cut off food and water deliveries to the ship. At one point, passengers were so thirsty, some licked water off the deck when a small amount spilled from a barrel.

Their fight was taken up by Sikhs on shore, who provided . extraordinary support for those on board. The Sikhs’ determined Shore Committee raised thousands of dollars from their relatively small community to pay for lawyers, ship supplies and expenses of the charter, itself. They kept up a barrage of pressure, until at last Ottawa over-ruled the obstreperous Reid and agreed to submit the matter to the B.C. Court of Appeal. With nothing approaching a Charter of Rights and Freedom, however, the five judges ruled unanimously that the ship’s passengers should be deported. Worn out by their many frustrating weeks at sea, those on board accepted the verdict.

Yet Reid, sensing Indian plots everywhere, continued to harass them, ordering the ship to leave without provisions and demanding its huge charter costs be paid first. The vessel remained at anchor, prompting Reid to cut off food and water for three more days. When he foolhardily came on board, the passengers threatened to keep him there. A tall, dignified Sikh told Reid: “If you were starving for three or four hours, you would soon take action to get something for yourself, but we have had nothing for three days. Now you are here, we would like to hold you until we get provisions and water.” The action worked, and supplies soon appeared. The passengers fought back again, when police subsequently tried to board the ship to send it on its way, still without adequate food. That battle brought in the navy, and that brought thousands of excited onlookers to the docks.

The hours ticked by. On the HMCS Rainbow, Commander Walter Hose warned authorities there could be heavy loss of life, if he were ordered to storm the Komagata Maru. Finally, much to the disappointment of the watching crowd and Malcolm Reid, the federal government blinked. They agreed to fully stock the ship for its return journey. At 5 a.m. the next morning, two months to the day of its arrival, the Komagata Maru weighed anchor and headed back to Asia. Racism had triumphed.

Tragically, this was not the end of the story. When the ship reached India, British authorities tried to force passengers directly back to the Punjab. When some resisted, imperial forces opened fire, killing 20 of them at an obscure railway depot named Budge Budge.

And back in Vancouver, bitterness erupted over the role of community informers used by Reid to keep tabs on the situation. Two informers were fatally shot. Shortly afterwards, Reid’s chief Sikh informant opened fire himself at the funeral of one of the victims, killing two worshipers. When Immigration Inspector William Hopkinson, who headed surveillance activities for Reid, showed up at the courthouse, local Sikh Mewa Singh took out a .32 calibre revolver and shot him dead. Before being hung for Hopkinson’s murder, Singh said he acted to uphold the principles and honour of his religion. To this day, Singh is recognized as a martyr by many in the Sikh community.

Copyright Rod Mickleburgh 2016

Further information:

The Voyage of the Komagata Maru: The Sikh Challenge to Canada’s Colour Bar, by Hugh J.M. Johnston, UBC Press: http://www.ubcpress.ca/search/title_book.asp?BookID=299174019

Passage from India, The Komagata Maru, Collections Canada (government site): http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/eppp-archive/100/200/301/ic/can_digital_collections/seeds/seeds/series1/episode-0318/sidebar.html

Komagatu Maru monument near Vancouver's convention centre, overlooking Coal Harbour.

Komagatu Maru monument near Vancouver’s convention centre, overlooking Coal Harbour. © Deborah Jones 2014

~~~

Rod Mickleburgh F&ORod Mickleburgh has been a journalist for more than 40 years, with stops just about everywhere, from Penticton to Paris to Peking. Managed a few awards and nominations along the way, but highlight was co-winning Canada’s Michener Award with my highly-esteemed Globe and Mail colleague, Andre Picard, for our coverage of Canada’s tainted blood scandal. Left the Globe, my reporting home for more than 22 years, in the summer of 2013. Have my name on two books: Rare Courage, containing first person-accounts from 20 veterans of World War Two, and The Art of the Impossible, a tale of the wild and wooly 39 months of British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government led by Dave Barrett. Co-authored with Geoff Meggs, The Art of the Impossible won the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction at the 2013 British Columbia Book Awards. Currently investigating time management, without regular deadlines. Visit Rod Mickleburgh’s WordPress site, Mickleblog.

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded by our readers. It is ad-free and spam-free, and does not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we require a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Details here; donate below. Thanks for your interest and support.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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“Feeling the Bern”

ROD MICKLEBURGH
March 25, 2016

Thousands turned out in Vancouver, Washington to hear Bernie Sanders. © Rod Mickleburgh 2016

Thousands turned out in Vancouver, Washington to hear Bernie Sanders. © Rod Mickleburgh 2016

The 74-year old, white-haired politician advanced to the podium, and the roof nearly came off the Hudson’s Bay High School gymnasium. No wonder. For nearly four hours, thousands of us had been standing in line, braving a cold, miserable rain, without even knowing whether we would be among the 5,000 or so lucky enough to make it inside. Our little group, friends after sharing the miserable ordeal outside, scraped through by the skin of our chattering teeth, but the doors soon closed on thousands more.

As the cheers continued to cascade down from the packed, rickety benches of the high school gym, Bernie Sanders leaned forward and shouted in his hoarse, Brooklynese. “All I can say is: WHOA!” The roar got louder. “It sounds to me like the people of Vancouver and the state of Washington are ready for a political revolution.” Clearly they were, along with millions of other Americans across the country, who have been rallying in such astonishing numbers to the political phenomenon that is Bernie Sanders.

While the headlines and pundits focus on the truly frightening Donald Trump, Sanders has been going about his business, undeterred by numbers that show him with little chance of wresting the Democratic Party nomination from the well-connected Hillary Clinton. He pursues his quixotic quest with no sign of flagging enthusiasm, urging the crowd to register and show up for the coming caucuses to determine convention delegates for the State of Washington.

© Rod Mickleburgh 2016

© Rod Mickleburgh 2016

Now it was our turn for the Bernie Sanders Socialist Revival Hour. The rally in Vancouver showcased just how much the Sanders campaign and its captivating slogan “A Future to Believe In” remains full of vigour. A pleasant but otherwise nondescript, mid-sized city just across the Columbia River from Oregon, founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Vancouver is hardly a hotbed of political activism. Yet people began lining up at the crack of dawn for Sanders’ early afternoon appearance. “There are a lot of people I never thought would show up for a political rally (here],” one soaked, early arriver told a reporter. Indeed, that has been a feature of the Sanders campaign from the beginning. Many of those flocking to his side are first-timers from outside the traditional political spectrum. Millennials, in particular, were everywhere in the sea of Gortex and hoodies that stretched in all directions outside the school. “Maybe we can start a revolution,” said the young nursing student ahead of us in the rain-lashed line.

And maybe they can. Later that day, 25,000 showed up to hear Sanders in Seattle, another 10,000 in Spokane. Campaign organizers have now audaciously booked Seattle’s 45,000-seat Safeco Field for another mass public gathering. So far, Sanders has scored victories in 11 primaries and caucuses, securing a total of more than 900 delegates. Not bad for a Noam Chomsky-loving, self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a country where, until recently just to be branded a liberal was considered political death. It’s really quite amazing.

Few, maybe not even Bernie Sanders, saw this coming when he announced his bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The general consensus was that we were looking at a coronation, that there was an anointed candidate,” said Sanders. He paused. “Well, ten months have come and gone, and it doesn’t look to me like that’s the case….” The fired-up crowd erupted in a frenzy of sign-waving and cheers.

As the primaries pile up and the convention nears, Sanders has not watered down his radical rhetoric and progressive policies one bit. There is no move to the mushy centre in search of undecided voters. His targets remain the billionaires, Wall Street speculators, multi-national drug companies, the corporate media “who talk about everything except the most important issues facing the American people”, “militarized” police forces… The list is lengthy. His platform is pitched at the young and the powerless, low-wage earners struggling to make a living in a land said Sanders, where corporations pack up and move, if they can make even a few dollars more somewhere else. The “real change” the United States needs is unlikely to come from “Secretary Clinton”, he bluntly asserted, with her millions in campaign donations from Wall Street and trusts that include the fossil fuel industry and big pharmaceutical companies.

He laid it all out in a direct, forceful 45-minute speech, short on humour and niceties, long on all the ills of American society and, in the words of Lenin, “What Needs to Be Done.” Wild applause greeted every point he hammered home.

Like an old-time blues shouter, Sanders asked: “Are you ready for a radical idea?” The “Yes!” was deafening. “We are doing something extremely unusual in American politics,” he confided. “We are telling the truth.” And what is that truth? Sanders didn’t mince words. “The truth is that the ruling class of this country is so powerful that a handful of billionaires believe that with their billions they have a right to win elections for the wealthy and the powerful…But we say ‘no’ to the corporate billionaires on Wall Street. We are a democracy, and we are not going to allow billionaires to take it away from us.”

Despite the USA’s deep-seated history of red-baiting and anti-communism, Sanders is thriving with a socialist message that hasn’t changed all that much in the 40 years he’s been preaching it, a perennial lone wolf on the left. Yet suddenly, out of nowhere, people are listening and lapping it up. He has tapped into some of the working-class anger that has propelled Donald Trump to his current, scary prominence. The difference is that Trump’s poisonous brand is exclusive, while Sanders’ message is resolutely positive and inclusive. He wants a fair deal for everyone.

Sanders ploughs forward, undeterred by the legion of mainstream critics. “I’ve been criticized for saying this, so let me say it again,” he told us, drawing a rare laugh from the audience. “Every country in the world guarantees health care to all its people. Yet 29 million Americans still have no health insurance. Many others are being forced to pay huge sums for their coverage, while the drug companies keep ripping us off,” Sanders said. “I believe health care is a right, not a privilege. Medicare for all!” The declaration drew one of the loudest responses of the day. “Bernie! Bernie”, chanted the crowd. The chanters included the woman beside us who had shared her umbrella during our lengthy wait in line. She had asked about Canada’s health care system, after telling us that full coverage for herself, her husband and two kids would cost a thousand dollars a month. So her husband is doing without. These are the people joining the Sanders crusade. Left behind by the powers that be, they feel no one cares for them but Bernie.

In Vancouver, they were almost all white, befitting the city’s demographics, and predominantly young, like the teenaged couple sitting in front of us who interrupted persistent smooching to raise their right hands in a fist whenever Sanders said something they liked, which was often. “We’ve received more votes from people under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined,” trumpeted the junior Senator from Vermont.

Progressive promises piled up throughout his speech:

  • a nation-wide, minimum wage of $15 an hour.
  • a tax on “Wall Street speculation”
  • an end to “corporate tax loopholes”
  • an end to the War on Drugs (deafening whoops)
  • fixing a “rigged economy”, where the top one-tenth of one percent “has almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent”.
  • “comprehensive” immigration reform.
  • taking on the fossil fuel industry to combat climate change and enhance sustainable energy.
  • diversifying police forces “so they look like the people they’re policing”.

And finally, most popular of all, judging by the prolonged ovation it received: free tuition for all public college and university students. “Last I heard, getting an education is not a crime or a punishment,” said Sanders, to ringing cheers. “We need the best educated work force in the world. So why are we punishing young people with crushing debt by the time they graduate?”

Not since the hapless, 1948 run by Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party has there been such a radical, presidential platform from the left. Although it would undoubtedly be premature to write him off completely, Sanders remains a long shot to win the Democrat nomination. But he has tapped into a deep yearning for meaningful change among Americans struggling to survive, while the rich grow ever wealthier. No one seems frightened of the term “socialist” any more. As one of Sanders’ pollsters told New Yorker magazine, explaining millennial support for his candidate: “What’s their experience been with capitalism? They’ve had two recessions, one really bad one. They have a mountain of student-loan debt. They’ve got really high health care costs, and their job prospects are mediocre at best. So that’s capitalism for you.”

Sanders has already forced an increasingly worried Hillary Clinton to tack left on a number of issues, and he is showing signs of cutting into her strong support among Afro-Americans. According to the latest Bloomberg poll, “feeling the Bern” has now totally erased Clinton’s once enormous lead in popular support, and the two are in a dead heat. The remarkable journey launched by that old leftie codger has a ways to go yet.

Copyright Rod Mickleburgh 2016

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JEREMY CORBYN: British Labour’s New Leader. By William James and Michael Holden  Report

Jeremy Corbyn, a veteran left-winger who professes an admiration for Karl Marx, was elected leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party.  “Things can and they will change,” Corbyn, who when he entered the contest was a rank outsider, said in his acceptance speech after taking 59.5 percent of votes cast, winning by a far bigger margin than anyone had envisaged.

Trump or no Trump, the Democrats are going to win in the fall. By Tom Regan, Summoning Orenda Column

I’m tired of all the handwringing about Donald Trump. Yes, he’s bringing out a lot of new white voters, particularly angry white men. Yes, more Republicans are showing up to vote in the primaries than Democrats are. Yes, Trump is the “unexpected factor” that no one saw coming. Yes, underestimating Trump in the coming fall, as Republicans did last fall, is the greatest danger the Democrats face. It doesn’t matter one bit.

You say you want a revolution? By Tom Regan, Summoning Orenda Column

You say you want a revolution …  Well, I’m all in. I’m seized with joy at the thought of overthrowing the corrupt U.S. financial establishment. I’m gripped with enthusiasm at the thought of bringing justice and economic security for all Americans. But there might be a few problems …

Fox News Facebook page

The art of manipulating campaign coverage  By Tom Regan, Summoning Orenda Column

Who is manipulating whom in media coverage of United States politics? American media manipulates the way they tell stories in order to increase eyeballs and produce a narrative that suits their tastes. But politicians then manipulate the media into creating those narratives and building on them, despite what is actually going on in the campaign.

SandersWhy Bernie Sanders won’t win the Democratic nomination By Tom Regan, Summoning Orenda Column

With the momentum favoring Bernie Sanders, why is it that I am predicting that ultimately Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president in 2016? It boils down to a simple factor: Bernie Sanders is too white. And so are Iowa and New Hampshire.

 

~~~

Rod Mickleburgh F&ORod Mickleburgh has been a journalist for more than 40 years, with stops just about everywhere, from Penticton to Paris to Peking. Managed a few awards and nominations along the way, but highlight was co-winning Canada’s Michener Award with my highly-esteemed Globe and Mail colleague, Andre Picard, for our coverage of Canada’s tainted blood scandal. Left the Globe, my reporting home for more than 22 years, in the summer of 2013. Have my name on two books: Rare Courage, containing first person-accounts from 20 veterans of World War Two, and The Art of the Impossible, a tale of the wild and wooly 39 months of British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government led by Dave Barrett. Co-authored with Geoff Meggs, The Art of the Impossible won the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction at the 2013 British Columbia Book Awards. Currently investigating time management, without regular deadlines. Visit Rod Mickleburgh’s WordPress site, Mickleblog.

~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal, of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and we do not solicit donations from partisan organizations.  Please visit our Subscribe page to chip in at least .27 for one story or $1 for a day site pass. Please tell others about us, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Schiff sonatas score, Super Bowl blanked

Sir András Schiff, piano/Facebook

Sir András Schiff. Publicity photo/Facebook

ROD MICKLEBURGH
February, 2016

The treasured Leila Getz, described in the program as “Head Honcho” of the Vancouver Recital Society, welcomed us with her usual enthusiasm. “Thank you for choosing András Schiff over the Super Bowl. The magic begins.” And indeed, it did.

Moments later, the stately, 62-year old master pianist, wearing a knee-length black tunic, walked out from the wings, acknowledged our applause, sat down on the cushioned bench, rested his hands on the top of the piano for 20 seconds of contemplation, and began to play.

Levi's stadium. Photo: Jim Bahn/Flickr/Creative Commons

Superbowl half time show at Levi’s stadium. Photo: Jim Bahn/Flickr/Creative Commons

While gazillions tuned into the greatest annual event in the history of the world, aka the Feb. 7 Super Bowl, which surpasses even the Eurovision Song Contest in global importance, I sat entranced, with hundreds of others at the packed Vancouver Playhouse, for Schiff’s virtuoso recital. And to think, my first reaction when I discovered the cultural conflict between Super Bowl L and this long-ago booking was to ditch Schiff.

How could this life-long sports fan not prefer the performance of helmeted, gridiron goliaths bashing away at each other during those engaging snatches of football sandwiched between eight hours of commercials? Luckily, after one unsuccessful attempt to unload my Schiff ducat, I came to my senses. Denver and Carolina? Snore me big. Plus, I had PVR. András Schiff, it was.

The program by the renowned Hungarian-born maestro, no “hairy hound from Budapest” he, was sublime, even to these unclassical ears. Entitled The Last Sonatas, the program featured four pieces of music by Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert, all written during the composers’ final year of life. So there was a poignancy to them, too.

Still, I couldn’t help thinking of the Super Bowl, and how glad I was to be missing it. For one thing, András Schiff played 90 minutes straight. No half-time. Not a single time-out. No five-minute break for commercials every time he switched composers. Lovely. And mesmerizing.

Furthermore, what happened on the keyboard was easily the equivalent of what was taking place on the football field. You don’t believe me? You think a sonata is just a sonata? Take a gander at the commentary by wordsmith extraordinaire Donald G. Gislason in the programme notes.

Which is better? Another lame pass by Peyton Manning or the Star Wars-tinged Allegreto from Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major K. 570 “with its recurring tick-tock beat, [summoning] up the mechanical world of clockwork music, and [featuring} some robotic C-3PO-style humour in its cosmic leaps and mock-confused meanderings of imitative counterpoint”? To say nothing of Mozart’s ability to provide more than taco chips and chili at halftime. “[He is] like a celebrity chef challenged to create a multi-course meal using only a few ingredients,” Gislason tells us. “Mozart is masterfully economic in this movement, constantly re-using his material over and over again, making garnish and main course at will.”

I was hardly sorry to have missed all those third-and-outs by Manning and “Fig” Newton, when I got to hear the second movement from Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A Major D. 959: “A tour de force of compressed emotional energy that explodes into near-chaos in its middle section. It opens with a simple, sparsely textured, repetitive lament that circles fretfully round itself like a madman rocking back and forth in his hospital chair. More wide-ranging harmonic ravings lead to an outburst of unexpected violence and eventually to a dramatic confrontation.” Just like Von Miller taking down Carolina’s haughty, pouting quarterback.

And okay, there have been worse half-time shows than Beyoncé, the Mars guy and Coldplay, but Beethoven’s Sonata in A flat major Op. 110 gave them a pretty good run for the money. “Beethoven lards his first section with rhythmic irregularities, dynamic surprises, dramatic pauses, and other raw signifiers of loutish humour,” enthuses Gislason. “The central section continues the mayhem with a series of tumble-down passages high in the register, rudely poked from time to time by off-beat accents”. With the added thrill of “[hearing] the same major chord, repeated over and over, getting louder and louder, leading back to the fugue theme…” A true pop sonata by that 57-year old hipster, Ludwig van. I slay, indeed….

So, all in all, with the help of a few, pretty fair country composers, András Schiff was my Super Bowl MVP, man of the match in every way. (In fact, the Stupor Bowl, still plodding along when I got home, was so boring, I wound up switching to curling, as its no offense and numbingly-long commercial breaks came to a stultifying close.)

I never bothered with the PVR.

Copyright Rod Mickleburgh 2016

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You might also like on F&O:

Bread, circuses and deflated footballs, by Tom Regan, F&O Summoning Orenda column

This is where we have come to. We have, as a society, become obsessed with trivial pursuits. Not that this is necessarily a new development. As journalist H.L. Mencken said , you”ll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. We have always been rather easily baffled by bullshit. But the advent of the Internet and social media has kicked this cultural trait into hyper-drive.

~~~

 Listen to András Schiff perform Mozart’s Sonata in B flat major K. 570, in Los Angeles, February, 2015

Rod Mickleburgh F&ORod Mickleburgh has been a journalist for more than 40 years, with stops just about everywhere, from Penticton to Paris to Peking. Managed a few awards and nominations along the way, but highlight was co-winning Canada’s Michener Award with my highly-esteemed Globe and Mail colleague, Andre Picard, for our coverage of Canada’s tainted blood scandal. Left the Globe, my reporting home for more than 22 years, in the summer of 2013. Have my name on two books: Rare Courage, containing first person-accounts from 20 veterans of World War Two, and The Art of the Impossible, a tale of the wild and wooly 39 months of British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government led by Dave Barrett. Co-authored with Geoff Meggs, The Art of the Impossible won the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction at the 2013 British Columbia Book Awards. Currently investigating time management, without regular deadlines. Visit Rod Mickleburgh’s WordPress site, Mickleblog.

 ~~~

Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.

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Postcard from Poland as the Iron Curtain lifted

Old Town Square in Warsaw, in 2012. Photo by Eirik Newth via Flickr, Creative Commons

Poland was the first of the East Bloc countries to embrace democracy after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Above, Warsaw’s Old Town Square, in 2012. Photo by Eirik Newth via Flickr, Creative Commons

ROD MICKLEBURGH
November 09, 2014

As it happened, I was in the neighbourhood the day the Cold War’s most enduring symbol disappeared in a frenzy of exuberant East Berliners and belching Trabants streaming past the downed concrete.

Alas, however, I was not with the cheering masses, but stuck on a train from hell headed to Warsaw, idling in the East Berlin Bahnhof for a passport check, or some such thing. Gazing at the stolid, uniformed East German soldiers and railway attendants, I remember thinking: “The only country and system you have ever known is about to crumble. What can possibly be going through your minds?” Yet the cliché of stern, unsmiling, uniformed East German guards remained frozen in time. My “papers” were scrutinized with the same thoroughness that had been inflicted for years on Westerners travelling through their communist bastion.

Of course, I should have hopped off the train and witnessed history in the making. But, just as I chose to miss Dylan and the Band at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1965, I let this opportunity slip by, too. Sigh. 

Rod Mickleburgh, 1989

Rod Mickleburgh, 1989

Still, being in Warsaw while East Germany teetered also had its fascination. Once it became clear that the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, was no longer prepared to intervene in its so-called satellite states, Poland was the first of the East Bloc countries to embrace democracy, Recent elections had been won overwhelmingly by Solidarność. Many of their marvellous campaign posters featuring Gary Cooper in High Noon remained on walls and storefronts. 

Poland was in transition, its rigid state economy crumbling. As I worked on a radio documentary for Canada’s CBC radio Sunday Morning with the theme: ‘Can Poles make it through the winter?’, I visited crowded soup kitchens and poorly-stocked grocery stores. I vividly remember an old woman in tears over her small purchase of potatoes. “It’s all I can afford,” she wept, her meagre pension eroded by inflation. Shaken, my translator, a Solidarity activist imbued with the bright future of a non-communist Poland, quietly slipped her some money.

It was the dawn of the free market in Poland. An entrepreneur had set up the country’s first fledgling stock market on the second floor of the city’s ramshackle, old Fisherman’s Hall. A cab driver told me that now, for the first time, he could buy bananas. The independent, pro-Solidarity newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had just been launched. I visited its offices in a former kindergarten in a leafy, residential area of Warsaw. The paper’s star columnist was ensconced in a cubby hole that was once a washroom. Almost everyone else worked on desks scattered about the ex-school’s large open area. It felt like a student newspaper. Today, the Gazeta Wyborcza is the second largest newspaper in Poland.

But I most remember my first night in Warsaw, when I walked into the darkened main square of its beautifully-restored Old Town. A couple of guys, clearly from the country, were selling cheese by candlelight from the back of an old van. There was such simplicity to the scene as money and cheese changed hands, only the low hum of their voices breaking the silence of the vast, empty square. I thought to myself: “Thus, capitalism begins in Poland.”

There’s still something about being on the ground floor of a revolution, even without the immediacy of East Berlin.

Poles, meanwhile, were transfixed by the joyous scenes in that long-divided city. At the press centre, the lone television was tuned to CNN. Employees watched non-stop. They couldn’t believe their eyes. Hardline East Germany, with the Stasi, the shoot-to-kill border guards and everything else, succumbing to the people? It didn’t seem possible. But in this case, the over-used, simplistic phrase was right. The tearing down of the hated Berlin Wall really did mark the end of the Cold War. Two weeks later, Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution cranked up to take Havel to the Castle. Over Christmas, the odious Ceausescu’s were shot in Romania. Hungary consolidated its democratic advances. In no time, the once-mighty Warsaw Pact was history.

To think, when I headed to Europe in the fall of 1989 for a year’s stay in Paris, the big story was going to be the growing consolidation and unity of the EU. (That’s going well…..)

When my train passed through East Berlin on the way back from Warsaw, the guards were gone. A single station attendant checked my ticket and passport with all the attentiveness of a local transit guy.

A while later, I struck up a conversation with a friendly fellow from Oslo. He had boarded the train at East Berlin, and couldn’t stop talking about what it was like being among the hundreds of thousands of giddy Wall revelers. He told me that the moment he saw pictures of the Berlin Wall coming down, he booked off work, gathered up his two teenaged sons, and headed for East Berlin. “It is important for them to see history,” he said. “They will remember this for the rest of their life.”

A quarter of a century later, I would wager his prediction still holds.

Copyright Rod Mickleburgh 2014

November 11 in Poland is Independence Day. Poland regained independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitions by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. Its status was fleeting: after WW II it became the People's Republic, controlled by the USSR. Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Poland has again celebrated its independence every November 11. Photo of 2009 parade by Magic Madzik via Flickr, Creative Commons

Since 1989 November 11 in Poland has been known as Independence Day. Poland regained independence in 1918, after 123 years of partitions by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Russia. Its status was fleeting: after WW II it became the People’s Republic, controlled by the USSR. Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Poland has again celebrated its independence every November 11. Photo of 2009 parade by Magic Madzik via Flickr, Creative Commons

 

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Profile: a baby doctor who advocated abortion rights

Rod Mickleburgh F&O

Rod Mickleburgh

Like so many other doctors who perform abortions, Dr. Garson Romalis started because of a tragic case. More than 50 years ago, before abortion was permitted in Canada, he was an aspiring obstetrician/gynecologist. “I was assigned the case of a young woman who had died of a septic abortion. She had aborted herself using slippery elm bark,” said Dr. Romalis. He best loved delivering babies — but he also became an advocate for a woman’s right to an abortion, writes Rod Mickleburgh in his profile of the doctor. An excerpt:

Dr. Garson (Gary) Romalis never sought the limelight. He was thrust into it in the most terrible way, with two serious attempts on his life. Dr. Romalis was targeted because he provided abortions to desperate women, which of course are completely legal procedures, paid for by medicare.

The first attack came within an ace of costing him his life. A sniper’s bullet fired through his kitchen’s glass doors, as he ate breakfast, tore into his left thigh, rupturing a key artery. He would have bled to death on the kitchen floor, if he had not been able to use the belt from his bathrobe as a crude tourniquet. As it was, he spent months in hospital and never recovered completely.

Six years later, he was stabbed as he walked through his clinic’s office lobby. Again, he survived.

Sadly, Dr. Romalis did not survive a serious bout with pancreatitis earlier this year, and he passed away in January at the age of 76.

Log in to read GARSON ROMALIS: A Medical Hero.  (Subscription or site day pass required*) The profile is part of F&O’s PLayers series, in Dispatches.

 

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Mickleburgh: Bangladesh and The Bay

Since more than 1,100 textile workers were killed in the calamitous collapse of a building in Dhaka, where they laboured to make cheap clothes for consumers in wealthier countries, scores of European and North American retailers have signed a binding accord to help improve workplace safety in Bangladesh. Holdouts include the Hudson’s Bay, the oldest, continuous commercial operation in North America, as well as Walmart, Canadian Tire and others which opted for a lesser safety agreement that does not provide for independent, on-site, factory inspections.

This week, reports Rod Mickleburgh, about 100 union activists, including the leader of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, trooped into The Bay in downtown Vancouver to make their case. Gathered before swank, high-priced merchandise, they serenaded shoppers, mannequins and suddenly-invisible Bay managers with chants of “Shame” and “Sign the Accord.”

Asks Mickleburgh in a Commentary column: “Surely, some executives somewhere must also be capable of thinking: if the cost of doing business involves the kind of textile-production atrocities we see in Bangladesh, is that production we want to be part of?”

Log in and read Mickleburgh’s column here.*

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George Packer’s The Unwinding

F&O Packer Unwinding book titleAmerican George Packer of The New Yorker was scorching in his take of the state of his union, talking in Vancouver at a writer’s festival.

Writes Rod Mickleburgh: “He drew gasps from the nearly sold-out crowd at the university’s Frederic Wood Theatre, when he pointed out that Sam Walton’s six heirs will eventually have as much wealth as the bottom 42 per cent of Americans. Meanwhile, incomes for the country’s top one per cent have soared by 256 per cent over the past 30 years, while those of the middle class have nudged higher by a mere 21 per cent.

“These aren’t just numbers,” said Packer. “This is a very bad sign. It’s bad for democracy … It’s starting to feel like the end of an empire.”

Read Mickleburgh’s story in Ex Libris, available to monthly subscribers or with a $1 day pass to Facts and Opinions.

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Rod Mickleburgh

Rod Mickleburgh F&OA journalist for more than 40 years, with stops just about everywhere, from Penticton to Paris to Peking. Managed a few awards and nominations along the way, but highlight was co-winning Canada’s Michener Award with my highly-esteemed Globe and Mail colleague, Andre Picard, for our coverage of Canada’s tainted blood scandal. Left the Globe, my reporting home for more than 22 years, in the summer of 2013. Have my name on two books: Rare Courage, containing first person-accounts from 20 veterans of World War Two, and The Art of the Impossible, a tale of the wild and wooly 39 months of British Columbia’s first New Democratic Party government led by Dave Barrett. Co-authored with Geoff Meggs, The Art of the Impossible won the Hubert Evans Prize for non-fiction at the 2013 British Columbia Book Awards. Currently investigating time management, without regular deadlines.

Mickleburgh’s WordPress blog is Mickleblog.

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