Across Europe on foot – a vanished world

As a young man fresh out of high school, I tramped around much of British Columbia and Alberta before landing my first newspaper job. I rode in the coal tender of a CPR train (with permission of the engineer) and often slept out rough, one time in an abandoned cabin and another on the floor of a railway station in a tiny mountain village. None of these adventures, however, compare with the life that Patrick Leigh Fermor led as he walked across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople, in the 1930s.

Fermor lived to the age of 96, dying in 2011, but not before he’d written three books on his epic trek, along with eight others covering various acts of derring do during a charmed life. It was a life that could not be lived today, and his books transport us into another world – the Europe of the interwar years when deposed nobility still lived in castles across Hungary and Transylvania, peasants led lives almost unchanged from feudal days, and the spectre of fascism was only beginning to rear its head.

A Time

Fermer begins his trans-European trilogy with A Time of Gifts. He is eighteen and he has shipped out from London for the continent. The book takes him up the Rhine and down the Danube to Hungary. The next, Between the Woods and the Water, sees Fermer enjoying the hospitality of counts and barons as he’s passed from hand to hand into Bulgaria. The third, The Broken Road, was published after his death, and takes the reader to Mount Athos, in Greece, where another chapter of this unlikely life would soon unfold.

These and other books by Fermor have now earned him acclaim as the greatest travel writer of the twentieth century, ahead even of such stalwarts as Jan Morris or Paul Theroux.

Fermor grew up with relatives, his father being an official in British India and his mother too busy to rear her son. His early years involved him in one scrape after another, although probably none as serious as he pretends them to have been. An affair with a tradesman’s daughter led to him being asked to leave King’s School, Canterbury. When he decided to wander Europe and needed a passport, a helpful clerk suggested he list his occupation as student.

The books were written a half century after the sojourn. It’s sometimes difficult to tell whether his observations are those of a whippingly smart young man or the reflections of an old hand on the road who has seen it all. His keenness for detail, be it the clothes of the women he admires in Vienna and Budapest or the church architecture he encounters in the back reaches of Rumania, almost tire the eye and mind of the reader.

Fermor is keen to pass on the history of the lands through which he traveled. He’s fascinated by the waves of humanity that have swept in from the Asian steppes and tells us a lot about how eastern European became what it is today. There’s also sadness for the fates of the people in the ruling castes who befriended him. Many, he learns later, either die in the Holocaust, fall in battle, or have their possessions taken from them when the Iron Curtain entraps the lands through which he had passed.

A mountain trek is described in lyrical terms:

 Cliffs and bands of rock jutted from the trees and sometimes the woods opened to make way for landslides and tumbled boulders and fans of scree. There was the scent of pine-needles and decay. Old trunks had rotted and fallen and the pale leaves of the saplings which replaced them scattered the underworld with various light and broke it into hundreds of sunbeams.

Tattered maps and old notes guide Fermor through his accounts, along with a prodigious memory that recalls the smell of cigar smoke in the library of a mountain estate and the taste of fresh fish cooked over a shepherd’s fire.

Fermor loved Rumania and a Rumanian countess, and lived there before the Second World War. He served in the British Army and led a secret mission that kidnapped the German commanding officer of the Greek island of Crete. He settled in Greece after the war and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.

Paddy Fermor (as he was known to friends) visited “faraway lands and people of which we know little” (the phrase used by Neville Chamberlain to justify the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich). Today, the world comes to Canada in the form of refugees and other immigrants. We cannot expect them to be like us; Fermor would have been disappointed – and had little to write about – if he had found mere clones of Englishmen in the valley of the Danube.

Fathers and Sons

Ever since Homer wrote in The Odyssey of the misery of Laertes, the father of Odysseus, over his son’s twenty-year absence following the Trojan War, thinkers have sought to dissect the dynamics of father-son relationships. Marco Polo’s father Niccolo, absent during the first fifteen years of the boy’s life, tried to assuage their long separation by taking him to the court of Kublai Khan, a trip that set the stage for an equally enthralling literary epic. In a later age, Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev wrote of the generation gap in Fathers and Sons and Vincent van Gogh struggled to gain approval of a brooding and melancholy father who punished him severely and often. More infamously, Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”) remembers only a mean and unforgiving father who applied his authority relentlessly and “forbade me to nourish the slightest hope of ever being allowed to study art.”

It is the lives of famous sons of famous fathers that attract the closest scrutiny, particularly when they occupy significant public positions. In Canada, the most notable example is of course that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. British Columbia produced father and son premiers in William Bennett who followed an ebullient parent, W.A.C. Bennett, into office. Justin Trudeau, dealing with new issues a generation on from his father, exhibits the same activist government philosophy of his parent. The younger Bennett, driven by a fierce free enterprise ethic learned from his father, presided over the greatest period ever of B.C. economic expansion.

In a longer history, the United States has had two father-son presidential successions: George W. Bush, 43rd president and son of George H.W. Bush, the 41st; and John Quincy Adams, 6th president and son of John Adams, the country’s 2nd president. You can see some parallels in their careers. The younger Bush, misled by faulty intelligence that led him to make war on Iraq, appears to have been motivated to “finish the job” begun by his father in the 1990-91 Gulf War. The sorrowful outcome, one is wont to think, is probably more regretted by the father than by the son.

Two of the foremost pariah states of the twenty-first century, Syria and North Korea, are led by family progeny. Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria since 2000, is the son of Hafez al-Assad who held power from 1971 to 2000. Kim Jong Un, chair of the Workers’ Party of Korea, represents an even more entrenched dynasty: his father and grandfather had since 1948 controlled the destiny of twenty-five million North Korean countrymen.

In every case of father to son succession, it might be asked if it was the fathers who set the sons on their course toward political power, or might they have achieved such destiny without parental example? In thousands of papers and hundreds of books, psychiatrists and psychologists have put forth a dizzying variety of findings on the influence of fathers on their sons’ choices in life.

These experts agree on many aspects of parenting and they are the most in agreement when it comes to down to earth, common sense conclusions. More than one study has found that love is the most important thing a father can offer a son, or a daughter, for that matter. Other most often mentioned qualities of a strong father-son relationship are the fathers’ availability when they’re needed, their involvement in their childrens’ day-to-day lives, their success as a provider, and their position as a role model.

All of these qualities seem timeless, but are embedded in deeply held social attitudes that change over the generations. Throughout, we’ve lived with the “good dad/bad dad” dichotomy while realizing there’s probably a bit of both in most fathers. Almost the worst thing a father can do, even worse than being drunk or a poor provider, is to be absent, according to some experts. On the other hand, how about he negative qualities that some fathers impart to their children? There’s a song for this: Cat’s in the Cradle, by Harry Chapin.

My child arrived just the other day

He came to the world in the usual way

But there were planes to catch and bills to pay

He learned to walk while I was away.

As the boy grows, he insists “I’m gonna be like you, dad.” And when dad is retired and wants to spend time with his son, he finds he is too busy to see him. “He’d grown up just like me.”

There can be more serious consequences of fatherly misdirection that mere emulation of busyness. Many studies have shown how self-centered, competitive and arrogant fathers can damage their sons’ personalities. These men are perfectionists who see their children as extensions of themselves. Their sons, especially, grow up insecure.

Ronald F, Levant, past president of the American Psychological Association, would agree. “Fathers were expected to model, encourage, and even to demand masculinity in their sons,” he has written. The results, according to studies by Levant, were too often low self-esteem and excessive use of alcohol by sons who felt they had failed to measure up to their dads’ demanding standards.

So now we get to the big questions: In an age of same-sex marriage, are fathers really necessary – other than biologically? And are the negative qualities of some fathers so profound that their children would be better off with them absent from their lives? Arguably yes, to both. Adolph Hitler or Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas shooter, might never have turned out as they did but for their fathers’ impact on their personalities. (Paddock’s father was an escaped bank robber described by the FBI as a “psychopath” who should be treated as “armed and very dangerous.”) These men, like all of us, yearned for fatherly approval. Circumstance as well as genetics shaped their personalities.

I have only daughters and from them I have learned much about the often-fraught relationship between the generations. My father had many good qualities but when I needed him most, in my teen-age years, he was an aged veteran of the First World War – a shell of what he had been as a younger man – with little left to give. Wounds from shrapnel he’d taken at Vimy Ridge ran as open sores on his right calf. When my stepmother insisted he strap me for having landed a dirt-encrusted snowball on a bed sheet fluttering on the clothesline, he took me to the garage, razor strop in hand. “When I slap the bench,” he told me, “I want you to holler.” It was his way of saying he loved me.

Big Oil’s last hurrah

Many motorists choose their gas pump visits to match the small dips that occur in the day-to-day pricing of gasoline. I call tbis a “mug’s game.” It’s a term my old boss, John Bassett of the Toronto Telegram, was fond of applying to efforts of his editors to shoehorn late breaking news into a front page that was ready to go to press.

Oil reached an all-time peak of $145 a barrel in 2008. Then came the Great Recession. Prices for West Texas oil tumbled to an historic low of $26.55 per barrel in January, 2016. They have since almost doubled,  to around $51 today. And further increases are coming, according to the U.S. Energy Administration. It predicts oil will average $52 a barrel in 2018, rising to $75 by 2020, $109 by 2040, and peaking at $116 in 2050 (all in 2017 dollars).

Talk about a mug’s game!

Forecasts like these are usually upset by unforeseen, or even expected, events. Who foresaw the Great Recession? Who could have predicted that Saudi Arabia would decide to pump surplus oil into the market in order to knock down prices — and so drive new competitors, like the shale oil industry in the United States,and the Alberta oil sands in Canada, toward bankruptcy.

Anyone who thinks Big Oil is here to stay should read Chris Turner’s epic history of the oil sands, The Patch: The People, Pipelines, and Politics of the Oil Sands. In it, he analyzes how that stretchof oil-drenched loam and sand in northern Alberta has been dug into, carved up, and generally desecrated.


Turner, a veteran Calgary author and journalist, is not anti-oil sands. He’s more interested in how the rise of the oil sands and its capital, Fort McMurray, has affected the people involved — everyone from local Indigenous, to Newfoundland fishermen and Pakistani immigrants who found work tapping into the underground wealth of that northern terrain.

Turner begins The Patch with an account of a small environmental disaster: the death of 1,601 ducks who landed on a Syncrude tailings pond in the middle of a snowstorm. They thought they’d found a safe haven, but didn’t understand that what they took for open water was actually a tarry mix of oil, heavy metals, and chemicals.

From that debacle, Turner goes on to recount early attempts to develop the oil sands. He describes how corporate America came to the scene with the arrival of Sun Oil in the 1950s, becoming a partner in a consortium called Great Canadian Oil Sands.

By 2006, Turner writes, “twice as many Newfoundlanders worked in Alberta as there were employed in the decimated fishery back home.” Then came the twin disasters of the Great Recession and the “The Beast,” the fire that enveloped much of Fort McMurray and the surrounding oil sands territory.

Turner reports on environmental studies that present “a powerful litany of abuses.” He adds: “The oil sands is the largest new source of carbon pollution in Canada — but its emissions intensity per barrel has been dropping steadily for years.”

Despite this, Turner says, “A thing of such scope and power and wealth as The Patch doesn’t go away overnight or in a few years. Building the entire industrial basis of modern society on a new energy regime does not happen overnight or in a few years. We will have The Patch for years, decades … We are all stakeholders. We are all complicit.”

When the Energy East pipeline was cancelled a few weeks ago, it was admitted that market forces — a declining need for new pipelines beyond the Kinder Morgan in B.C. and the Keystone XL in the States — were the main factor in the decision.

Less attention was paid to the announcements of a string of car companies from General Motors to Volvo that they would be phasing out gasoline models in favour of electric vehicles over the next ten to fifteen years. With two-thirds of world oil production now going to power cars, buses, trucks and planes, can oil be anything but a declining force in a future of electric vehicles?

I began my writing career with an article about the oil sands that the Rocky Mountain Oil Reporter published in the 1950s. It was one of the first pieces to recognize that a great new industry was soon to come into being.  I congratulated myself on the $12 check I received.

Now, the oil sands are one of the most widely written about industries in the world. In The Patch, Chris Turner has written a book that brings to life a significant slice of modern Canada. But perhaps his book also signals the last great hurrah for Big Oil.




The ‘Blue Wall’ of prison injustice

The pictures* offer graphic evidence of institutional cruelty – wire cages not much larger than a phone booth, that hold troubled prisoners in Ontario jails. The pens are not that different from the upright coffins into which men were stuffed for punishment in the Kingston Penitentiary a century and a half ago.

Corrections Canada, the agency that overseees Canada’s federal penitentiaries, recently discontinued use of such devices. It is struggling to slowly move into the twenty-first century, although its insistence on continued use of segregation is at conflict with government directives to put more emphasis on rehabilitation and less on punishment.


If any further evidence of correctional failure in Canada were needed, one might point to the two lawsuits in which the federal government is continuing to defend the use of segregation of youthful prisoners (18-21) and those with mental disorders. We have seen people die – and be murdered – in Canada’s jails. We continue to warehouse young Indigenous men in the penal system. They make up 27 per cent of the inmate population, while representing less than five per cent of the total population.

These latest disclosures will come as no surprise to Robert Clark, a retired deputy warden of Kingston Penitentiary and author of a memoir, Down Inside: Thirty Years in Canada’s Prison Service. He spoke at the recent Kingston Writersfest.

Clark set out as a young recruit in the Canadian penitentiary service, determined to bring some humanity to the jails to which he was assigned. He found a system that “almost sanctions the mistreatment of prisoners.”

One of the biggest problems, Cark soon discovered, is the “blue wall” that prison staff erect to hide that mistreatment, to cover up and gloss over official wrong doing.

Based on his own experience, Clark supports estimates that up to forty per cent of the inmates of Canadian jails suffer from mental problems and/or cognitive impairments, He ended his career as deputy warden in charge of the Regional Treatment Centre, a jail within a jail at Kingston Penitentiary. It housed prisoners with identified mental problems.

How these prisoners are being treated, following the closure of the Kingston Pen, is anybody’s guess.

Clark has harsh comments about the “tough on crime” policies of the Harper regime, not all of which have yet been reversed by the Trudeau government. He stresses the importance of recognizing the harm done to victims of crime, and speaks eloquently of the pain victims have shared with him. But Clark insists that harsh treatment of offenders who eventually have to be released is counter-productive to the public interest.

“I was personally offended by what I considered an abrupt and wrong turn in correctional philosophy,” Clark writes of the Harper edicts. “ I concluded I could no longer work for CSC (Correctional services Canada.”)

Robert Clark’s Down Inside truly takes readers inside the Canadian prison system. He describes innumerable cases where the system has failed prisoners as well as the public.

Suicides committed while in segregation have been much in the news in recent years. Clark describes a case he was asked to investigate where a prisoner at the Kingston Pen had killed himself while in a segregation cell. The man had cut his wrists with a smuggled razor blade after covering the small window that allowed guards to look into his cell.

“Even though solitary staff knew prisoners were prohibited from covering their cell windows, they allowed the practice,” Clark says. “The window remained covered for hours.” Nobody bothered to check the prisoner. When guards finally entered his cell after a lapse of many hours, they found him “lying face down in a large pool of blood, a note from his parole officer clutched in his hand.” It had told him of the death of his sister.

While Clark identifies shortcomings within Canada’s prison system, he has little to say (because his book is largely a personal memoir) about failures of the justice system that put most of the prisoners behind bars in the first place.

More Canadians than ever are in jail now, due largely to the Harper government’s laws setting mandatory minimum sentences for such offences as drug trafficking and some sex crimes. In all such cases judges are prohibited from considering alternatives to prison, such as probation, conditional sentences, or the use of restorative justice methods (where the accused is brought together with the victim and both discuss how harm done by the offender can be repaired).

In a postscript to my novel, An Act of Injustice, I argue that many non-violent offenders now in jail (mainly in provincial prisoners) need not be there. Imprisonment does little to prevent further crime, but incarceration costs taxpayers a lot of money that could be better directed toward rehabilitative treatment.

*Published in The Globe and Mail of October 11, 2017


Cultural appropriation – the battle’s over

What began as a dust-up among a small group of Canadian writers has blown up into a confrontation over an issue that’s long troubled the literary community.

It’s about “cultural appropriation” – the practise of a dominant culture stealing the symbols, ideas and values of an oppressed minority. And it’s been going on for centuries, since long before the German amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, desecrated Troy as he blasted his way through Turkish antiquity.

The controversy in Canada is over the use by white writers of Indigenous personalities and settings, thereby – so the argument goes – depriving Indigenous authors of opportunities to tell their own stories.

This is not the first time Indigenous authors have fought to retain control over their heritage. In 1989, Chippewas poet Lenore Keeshig challenged the Writers’ Union of Canada over non-Indigenous writers telling stories in the voice of Indigenous characters. “Stop stealing our stories,” she demanded.


It was a time when author J.P. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe) was writing of disreputable and drunken characters among the Indian tribes of the Hobbema reserve in Alberta. He was loud in defending Dance Me Outside and his right to tell any story, any time, about whomever he wished.

More recently, questions were raised about the authenticity of the Indigenous relationships of Joseph Boyden, author of Three Day Road and other novels set among northern Ontario’s First Nations communities. “Not Indian enough,” it’s been said of Boyden, “to write Indian stories.” (Yes, the term Indian is still being used, sometimes contemptuously, sometimes historically).


The current dust-up arose in the Writers’ Union of Canada (of which I am a member) when an issue of its magazine Write, devoted ironically to Indigenous writing, featured an editorial rejecting the concept of “cultural appropriation.” Write about the things you know nothing about, urged editor Hal Niedzviecki. “Anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, their cultures, other identities.” He thought, satirically, there should be an Appropriation Prize for the best story by a writer of a culture she knows nothing about.

Of course this thoughtless and insensitive commentary soon landed Niedzviecki – and a number of prominent white Canadian writers who voiced support for him –in hot water. He resigned his position, the Writers’ Union issued an apology, and undertook to study a series of demands from its Equity Task Force.

Walrus magazine editor Jon Kay who had tweeted that Niedzviecki was being “mobbed,” resigned. The managing editor of CBC-TV’s The National, Steve Ladurantaye, was reassigned after pledging to contribute to a fund for an Appropriation Prize.


My sentiments are to come down on the side of freedom of expression. In my most recent book, An Act of Injustice, I devote a chapter to an Indigenous character who tells our young protagonist some brutal truths about the mistreatment of his people. In an article to be published in an upcoming issue of Canada’s History magazine, I reveal, through an interview with a Saskatchewan Indigenous chief, how he came up with the term First Nations to describe Canada’s Indian tribes. In my opinion, there’s no cultural appropriation here.

Today’s Indigenous authors – and there are many of them – are properly emboldened by the growing consensus among Canadians that the country must deal fairly, on a people to people basis, with its indigenous population.

It’s understandable that some Indigenous authors who have had trouble getting their work published will feel they’ve been frozen out by white writers who have trespassed on their territory. Honestly, I can’t think of many such examples.

Consider these facts:


  • More books are being published today by Indigenous authors that ever before. CBC Books is boasting that during June – Indigenous Book Club Month – it will publish a recommendation a day of a book by an Indigenous author.
  •  This year’s Amazon First Novel Prize of $40,000 has gone to a Metis writer, Katherena Vermette of Winnipeg, for The Break. A deserving winner.
  • The $5,000 Aboriginal Literary Award will be presented for the third year this month. It’s an award in which I’m proud to say I had a hand in creating, along with the Periodical Marketers of Canada association and the Southern Ontario Library Service.
  • A Toronto lawyer, Robin Parker, has raised more than $100,000 via online Crowdfunding in support for an Emerging Indigenous Voices award.

There’s no doubt newly empowered Indigenous writers are asserting themselves as creators and as players in the marketplace. A book on an Indigenous topic by a white writer will have to be overwhelmingly compelling before any publisher will take it on. All this suggests the battle about cultural appropriation is over – and it’s clear who’s won.


Memory as the jar of history

When the world marked the fifteenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, one in three of us had no memory of that calamitous event. We hadn’t yet been born or were but infants, a reminder of how quickly the onrush of time turns today’s reality into past.

Only those who have reached their late fifties or beyond have personal remembrance of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. A film made then about the President’s death observed that “the day will some day come when the early nineteen sixties will seem like a very long time ago.”

Anthony Doerr, author of the marvellous book, All the Light We Cannot See, tells us in this interview that “We’re losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left — very very few people left — who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.”

In my book The Paris Game I wrote of the French Resistance veterans who I saw at an anniversary celebration of the liberation of the city: “We will not much longer have among us those who bear personal witness to the events of August 1944.”

519xiqcy3rl-_sx331_bo1204203200_-1Of the First World War, all are gone, although they are not entirely forgotten. It may have been the awful slaughter of that battle, and the fear of the French that Germany might rearm and come once more against them, that inspired Marshall Ferdinand Foch to murmur, “A people without memories is a people without a future.”

Many great war novels have been written since Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was published in 1869. Of books on the First World War, I consider Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago the most profound, most emotionally powerful, and the best documented fictional account of that conflict and how it brought suffering to the lives of millions of Pasternak’s countrymen. The sentiments of the novel were captured faithfully and authentically in the movie starring Julia Christie and Omar Sharif.

Now, All the Light We Cannot See, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize, presents a beguiling, unforgettable chronicle of a Second World War love that comes to match anything of which Pasternak wrote, yet  leaves us mysteriously  both curious and satisfied as to the way human fortunes turn on the unpredictable, and how fate unknowingly bestows its inevitable outcome on each of us.

More than 25,000 reviews of this book have been posted to Amazon. Nearly all are enthusiastically favourable. The book tells the story — entirely in the present tense — of a German boy recruited into the Hitler Youth, a French blind girl whose father is given the responsibility to save a precious jewel from the Nazis, and a heartless pursuer of all three, a man as corrupted in spirit as his body is by disease. How their fates lock together in the legendary French coastal outpost of Saint-Malo, and the paths that some of their lives take after the war, provide a gripping plot through to the last of the book’s 532 pages.

Its last chapter is set in what for me is a familiar site — the Jardin des Plantes in left bank Paris. The heroine, Marie-Laure LeBlanc, walks the path that winds to the top of a hill and a gazebo that stands there. I recall walking that very path on a pleasant October morning.

All the Light We Cannot See is more, of course, than the story of its central characters. It is a dissertation on time and a meditation on the unseen light that fills the universe in the form of electromagnetic waves and other forms. It is also an essay on the control of the human spirit, and a warning for our age that it is not so difficult to warp and bend society into directions that can lead only to catastrophe. In this novel Anthony Doerr gives us some of the most original writing of our time, and a work that will be memorialized long into the future.





The enduring mystery of van Gogh’s ear — has it now been finally solved?

It ranks among the most famous body parts of history, on a level with Venus de Milo’s missing arm, Pinocchio’s nose, and the penis of the statue of a little boy in the Grand Place in Brussels from which emerges a continuous splash of water.

I refer, you may have guessed, to Vincent van Gogh’s ear – the ear that he cut off, in whole or in part during an attack of hysteria brought on by the departure of his painter friend Paul Gauguin from their Yellow House in Arles, France.

This most famous of the early modern painters is known as much for his troubled mental state as for his brilliant artwork. And despite the efforts of legions of physicians, psychologists and psychoanalysts to fathom the exact nature of van Gogh’s illness, the world today knows little more of it than on the sultry day in 1890 when he took his life by gunshot (or was it an accident?).

As van Gogh struggled with apparent attacks of epilepsy that rendered him near senseless, he managed to create the greatest works of his lifetime. Most of this took place in the southern French town of Arles, and in the mental institute of Saint Paul de Mausole in nearby Saint-Rémy.


Doctors had various theories as to the cause of van Gogh’s problems but few answers. Sigmund Freud was still meddling with hypnotism. The emerging psychiatrists of the day were known as alienists, trying to understand the alienation sick patients were indicating as the key symptom to their mental illness.

Van Gogh’s attack on his ear, which came on the night before Christmas Eve in 1889 after escalating arguments with his house guest Paul Gauguin, provides the focal point of a fascinating new book, Van Gogh’s Ear; The True Story.

The author, Bernadette Murphy, is an obscure Englishwoman who lived for many years in the South of France before taking up a study of van Gogh’s life. Once she got started, she was indefatigable. Her book is as much a story of her research into forgotten archives that would shed fresh detail on van Gogh, as it is a retelling of the painter’s life.

“Practically everything I thought I knew about van Gogh in Arles when I set off on this adventure turned out not to be true,” she confesses.

Ms. Murphy made three remarkable discoveries. In musty boxes at the University of California, she had a custodian find a drawing of van Gogh’s ear by the physician who attended him in Arles, Dr. Félix Rey. It shows that van Gogh severed nearly the whole of his ear, and not just the lobe as has been generally believed. After more than a century, the mystery appears to have been solved.

Ms. Murphy was also able to establish the true identity of Rachel, the girl in the brothel to whom van Gogh presented his newspaper-wrapped ear, telling her to take good care of it. And the famous petition demanding van Gogh’s removal to an asylum was engineered, according to the author, by a real estate agent conniving to rent the Yellow House to a more reputable tenant.

In writing Van Gogh’s Ear, Ms. Murphy might have given more attention to the role that self-injury plays in emotionally disturbed people. The Mayo Clinic says “this type of self-injury is an unhealthy way to cope with emotional pain, intense anger and frustration.” Certainly van Gogh was undergoing such pain in Arles that Christmas, and indeed throughout much of his life.

Bernadette Murphy sees van Gogh’s actions that night as “altruistic – the behaviour of a thoughtful, sensitive, and extremely empathetic man,” one who was “far more than the sum of his torments ”

I was drawn to Van Gogh’s Ear because I’m working on my own upcoming book which I call Van Gogh’s Ghost. In it, I recount my search for the 21st century legacy of this great and troubled artist. But you don’t have to be writing about van Gogh to enjoy reading of him, and Bernadette Murphy’s contribution is an enjoyable and revealing addition to the shelves of van Gogh literature.

The world wonders about Canada – why do we have it so good?

One need not search far in the global media for commentary on the remarkable success Canada is enjoying amid a world of economic turmoil, political crisis, and cultural confrontation.

The Washington Post, seeking to understand “What Canada is About,” sees our welcome of 25,000 Syrian refugees (30,000 by the end of 2016) as evidence of a country pulling together to meet a new challenge:

“Businesses, the Canadian Labor Congress, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, small towns and large cities are all contributing clothing, furniture and financial support to help settle Canada’s most recent influx of refugees.”

The London Telegraph, commenting on the unprecedented openness and people mingling ability of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, offered an answer to those who criticize his penchant for selfies in this quote from political observer Amanda Alvaro:

“I think the team that surrounds the Trudeau government has really understood strategically that if you have a willing leader who is prepared to walk in Pride and take photos with people and be accessible, then you would use that to your advantage to get people to participate in the political process.”

While the United Kingdom totters toward separation (losing Scotland) and isolation (abandoning the EU) and the United States faces a presidential choice between an artful manipulator and an unadulterated ignoramus, Canada rejoices that it is led by a young, vigorous, progressive Prime Minister.

Nor are Canadian journalists shy about recognizing the euphoria that seems to have settled on the “peaceable kingdom.”

Margaret Wente of the Globe and Mail, generally no friend to liberals and progressives, wrote last week that “Canada is that increasingly rare exception — a country in which public support for immigration is strong.”

She quoted Prime Minister Trudeau at his meeting with the “Three Amigos,” (he, Barack Obama and the president of Mexico):

“No matter where you are from, nor the faith you possess, nor the colour of your skin, nor whom you love, you belong here. This is your home.”

Not that all is perfect in  Canadaland. Not all immigrants are succeeding, and the country is about evenly split on whether Canada’s current policies are taking it in the “right” direction.

So bring on the books. There’s been a half dozen published on Justin Trudeau, not counting his campaign autobiography, Common Ground.

The newest, Justin Trudeau: Natural Heir, will be out in English from Dundurn on July 23.  Huguette Young, the well-known Quebecoise journalist, wrote this in French and it’s been translated by George Tombs.


Huguette’s book is good workmanlike  reportage that takes one through the well-known early life of the son of Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and comes to a sudden stop on election day, October 15, 2015.

Like most books written on the run, The Natural Heir does not contain a lot of analysis. We learn that when he gave his noted eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000, “He seemed younger than his 28 years.”

We get a recounting of his educational progress through Collège Brébeuf, McGill University, and the University of B.C. When he decided to enter politics, he chose the tough east end Montreal riding of Papineau, then held by a Bloc MP, because if he could understand Papineau “it would be like understanding Canada as a whole.”

From there, the outcome seems inevitable. First came attempts by the Conservatives to denigrate him as a lightweight. They failed. In the debates, Young writes, “Justin Trudeau comes across as the embodiment of change. With the good looks, optimistic tone, dynamism and passion he seemed quite the reverse of Stephen Harper, who appeared wooden, serious, and controlling.”

“You can’t buy charisma,” Young tells us. “Justin Trudeau remained a blank slate.” “Trudeau played his cards well.”

For the general reader who doesn’t follow politics closely, this is an excellent primer on Canada’s new Prime Minister. Readers seeking a more analytical appraisal of Justin Trudeau’s attempt at feminist, progressive, and generally leftist policies will have to await another day.


How Winston Churchill beat the writing game

If you want to want to get rich don’t try to do it as a writer, any wise parent would advise their offspring. Unless, perhaps, by writing for corporations or big-time politicians. Winston Church did all three – became a tax-avoiding corporation, was a gifted and highly-paid author, and a brilliant statesman who led Britain and the West through World War II.

What would he think of the pressure on today’s emerging writers to write for free – for news blogs, commercial publishers, and for the general public?

Not much, according to an insifghtful biography of the great statesman. In Mr. Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer, Peter Clarke examines how the wartime leader conned publishers, beat the tax man, and crafted great literary works while staying just a dodge ahead of his creditors.


Churchill secured his position in history as a statesman, but Clarke makes it clear that “writing was his profession.” His country home of Chartwell became a “word factory” And through most of his life, his earnings from writing made up the bulk of his income.

How did Churchill do this? Born to a distinguished line of nobility, Churchill had friends at every level of high society and all of them – from his American-born other to prime minsters – helped him in his literary career even while they sometimes opposed his political ambitions.

Churchill made a name for himself as a newspaper correspondent at the time of the Spanish-American war and the South Africa, or Boer war. He was clever enough to turn his dispatches for the Daily Post from the Sudan – having earlier served in the 4th Hussars in India – into a best-selling book, The Story of the Malakand Field Force. His participation in a British expedition up the Nile led to a another success, The River War, published in two volumes.

Churchill didn’t have to look far for his earliest inspiration. He achieved early success with a book on his father. Lord Randolph Churchill became his great defence of his father, a key figure in British politics until his early death from syphilis. The book, together with proceeds from My African Journal and a novel, Savrola, earned Churchill over three thousand pounds in 1908-09 – half as much again as his salary as a government MP.

While Peter Clarke is meticulous in detailing Winston Churchill’s hereditary and personal life, it is when he digs into Churchill’s management of his literary income that he is most fascinating.

Throughout his life, Churchill was up against a wall of debt, built primarily from his exorbitant spending on personal pleasures such as wine and whisky. His 1935 accounts show four hundred pounds for wines and spirits supplied to his country home of Chartwell (another extravagance Churchill could hardly afford.)

In 1930, Churchill published an autobiography, My Early Life, and began work on what would be his greatest literary project, his History of the English Speaking Peoples. For the next decade, he stalled and delayed, promising but failing to deliver a completed manuscript of 400,000 words by 1937. He sucked up advances, and cleverly arranged for his publisher, Cassells, to buy the copyright to the work rather pay a royalty. In this way, the income became a capital gain and was free of tax under the laws of that time.

Churchill would not finish his monumental History until the 1950s. World War II got in the way. But the war did give rise to another great literary work, the Second World War.

Together, they stamped Churchill as one of the great figures f English literary, as well as of statesmanship.

Peter Clarke shrewdly observes that “The cash-strapped literary drudge who turned immediately from one big book to the next nevertheless lived in mouth-watering, eye-popping luxury.” And why not? In his own defence, Churchill often quoted Samuel Johnson: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”