Appreciating the CBC’s Grant Lawrence for his Evocation of Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 Visit to Fingal’s Cave

CBC Radio’s Grant Lawrence is for the second consecutive August filling in for three straight weekends as guest host for the Vancouver weekend morning show, “North by Northwest,” which airs from 6am-9am in British Columbia, and a very civil 9am-noon in NYC. I’ve been listening to, and enjoying Grant on the radio since 2009, when he was hosting “Grant Lawrence Live,” a three-hour show most weekday afternoons on CBCRadio 3, the Internet-only outpost for homegrown indie rock n’ roll on Canada’s national broadcasting service. For the devoted audience of which I was a part, we listened to the station as often as workdays, employers, and connectivity would allow. And Grant wasn’t the only popular host—there were many others avidly listened to, and musicians who did guest-hosting. The blend of infectiously enjoyable programming combined the best Canadian indie rock n’ roll; crackling wit, from Grant especially; good heart from all; regular podcasts that supplemented the daily programming; and a lively communal blog on the Radio 3 website where listeners, hosts, and musicians occasionally, were all on line together, sharing thoughts and info on topics-of-the-day, plus current events, both news from the public sphere, and from people’s lives. It made for great radio, a close virtual community, and music, art, and friendship that enriched many lives over several years.

In 2015, the CBC, what’s known in Canada as a “crown corporation”—already under strain for several years due to severe budget cuts under the misrule of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, plus questionable management by CBC appointees who didn’t, and still don’t know broadcasting—ended live daily hosting on Radio 3, with emotional final shows by all the hosts still there, with Grant and another, Lana Gay, among the last remnant. The programming became taped promos, intros, outros, pre-produced musician featurettes, and a livestream of music, much of it by the same artists as before, but lacking the personal touch. The blog was still available to us then, and many of the core still hung out there in virtual space; I continued to visit the blog occasionally, but much less often listened to the live stream. Even though Justin Trudeau came in to office as Canada’s new PM in November 2015, with a promise to restore funding to the CBC, the same management is still in place, and the privation of the service has not noticeably improved yet. Finally, last month even the Radio 3 blog was folded up, too. And, mysteriously, the music content on Radio 3 has been geo-fenced, so it can only be heard within Canada’s borders, even though Radio 3 had long had fans and listeners from the US, Mexico, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and all over the world.

I’ve drafted a letter that as a lifelong friend of Canada I’ll be sending to the Honourable Mélanie Joly, 
Minister of Canadian Heritage, who has purview over the CBC. It reads in part,

I am personally and professionally invested in the work of sharing Canadian culture and spreading word of it all among appreciative cultural consumers in New York City, the US, and the wider world, among music lovers, readers, and among people who appreciate what a good country Canada is, with so many creative people.

I am writing to express my sincere hope that you and your colleagues will seriously consider restoring live hosting to CBC Radio 3; the daily live blog; and continue to provide the music service that has introduced myself and many other non-Canadians to the rich treasure house of talented Canadian musical performers.

I very much appreciate your attention to this letter from a non-Canadian. I remain a friend to Canada and to Canadian artists. Thank you for your consideration.

I hope she and her staff will read this and consider reversing course in many areas with regard to CBC Radio. Some of the Radio 3 people have moved on to jobs elsewhere, like Lana Gay who is on-air at Indie 88 in Toronto. For his part, Grant Lawrence has stayed at the CBC, working in social media and digital marketing for CBC Music, the larger entity in to which Radio 3 was folded, then swallowed up and made in to just another of their many live streams.

This is all stated as prologue to explain that I’m pleased when, from to time, Grant does a guest-hosting stint on one of CBC Radio One’s many programs, such as the one mentioned above, on “North by Northwest,” as he has the past two weekends, and coming up again this weekend (August 13-14). On his first weekend in the hosting chair, he aired a fascinating interview with American-Canadian blues legend, Jim Byrnes. He’s also done a segment with Chris Nelson, a First Nations man who acts as custodian of 5,000-year old petroglyphs on the BC coast. Then, last weekend, he broadcast a segment about composer Felix Mendelssohn’s fateful tour of Scotland in early August 1829, when he toured the scenic Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles, located off the mainland of Scotland, 187 years ago this month. Among many majestic sights, the composer visited the isle of Staffa, which is composed of vertical basalt stacks, formed it is said from a volcanic blast that also created the Causeway of the Giants in County Antrim on the northeast coast of Northern Ireland. On Staffa, seven miles distant from the larger island of Mull, Mendelssohn visited Fingal’s Cave, a remarkable setting that inspired him to create new melodies after he experienced its uncannily acute acoustics, with the sea rushing in and out of the sheltered space. Last Sunday, Grant played the splendid orchestral overture “The Hebrides,” and a section from Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony.

All this reminded me of a visit Kyle Gallup and I made to Scotland in 1992, when we also toured the Hebrides and visited Fingal’s Cave on a boat ride that landed us at the edge of the island, permitting us to take a brief walk inside the cave, using guiding ropes and metal stanchions sunk in the rock to keep visitors from sliding in to the water. The stanchions looked as if they were fixed in place almost 187 years ago! I’m glad I can share my photos here from our remarkable day, just as Mendelssohn shared his through his music. The first three photos (including the one at the top of this post) show us approaching Fingal’s Cave, the middle two show us after we landed for our brief visit, and the last was taken from inside the cave itself. Thanks to Grant Lawrence for the reason to remember the glorious music of Felix Mendelssohn and our visit to Fingal’s Cave almost 25 years ago! I’ll be listening to him on “North by Northwest” again this weekend, and you can too, right here via the Internet.

From inside Fingal's Cave

Helping People Feel Better During a Lousy Week

A Facebook post of mine that I published this past Thursday night, Nov 19, is having a very wide popularity, more than I anticipated when I put it up. I was inspired to share by Farzin Yousefian and Samantha Jackson, the Toronto couple pictured here who, before their recent marriage, decided to donate to a charity the money they’d up till then been planning to spend on a big wedding reception—enough money to sponsor a family of four Syrian refugees in Canada for one year. It’s had more than 800 1000 people ‘like’ it on Facebook, with 150 shares, from among my Facebook friends, of course, but also by people I don’t know. That’s because I choose to label my posts as ‘Public’ on Facebook, and not just for ‘Friends.’ Meantime, a link I’d created from the News article about their generosity, which I used to make the post, has been passed along nearly 1,500 more than 2,000 times Friday as of Sunday night. It’s elicited many kind comments, and one bigoted hater, whom we as a group rebutted and rebuffed. I see the reception for the post as a good-news story about a truly feel-good story, amid a week when so much malevolent violence and xenophobia was coursing through tmany countries, including the US and Canada.

I should add I label my posts as ‘Public’ on Facebook, because I don’t fear what other people may say, and I enjoy engaging with the occasional stranger who makes a comment about something I’ve shared, and quite often gain new followers this way. Only rarely does somebody like the hater today crop up. I had an internal debate, and a public one with a few friends on the thread about the bigot, as to whether I would leave up his vile pronouncements, or delete them. In the end, I blocked him, because it became clear he just wanted to fight with me and others on the thread, but I did leave up his remarks, and our rebuttals, as a record of one person’s mindset, and our collective response, in dedication and memoriam to all people suffering in war, especially civilians, non-combatants, who are suffering right now so much, fleeing perilous devastation at home. Thanks to all friends and new people who read the original Facebook post, and this blog post, which is sort of meta to the first. The funny thing is, had I thought of it Thursday night, I might’ve blogged about the couple, and drawn a lot of that traffic to my sites, but I seized on it for Facebook, and am really very glad I did.

Also, please note that friends and readers who want to, may donate to a fund organized by the couple. The money they donated of their own, plus funds from friends and family who followed their directive and contributed have mustered more than $17,000, when $27,000 is needed to settle and shelter a family of four in Toronto for one year. You may follow this link, then look for the drop down menu where it says, “Select a designation for your gift,” and look for “Samantha Jackson & Farzin Yousefian.” I just donated.

George Stroumboulopoulos’ Music Friends On Why CBC Matters

Turns out the video below is geo-fenced off from the US. Oh, well, this link to it should may work: I enjoy listening to the Strombo Show on CBC Radio 2 Sunday nights from 8-11pm. Here's a video his program put out Sept 1, as their new season began. It documents why CBC matters, even in an era when many other media platforms are available for music lovers and cultural consumers to enjoy.

Did Allied Bombing of France in WWII Cross an Ethical Line?

Are you aware that during WWII, British, American, and Canadian airplanes bombed Nazi infrastructure and installations in occupied France, or that an estimated 57,000 French civilians died from Allied actions during the war? I was not until last night, when I heard an in-depth report by BBC correspondent John Laurenson that CBC Radio carried on their weekend news program. In Laurenson’s story, the transcript of which can be read here, with several illustrations, he added that Free French forces pleaded for a halt to the raids, to no avail. Meanwhile, the Vichy government—cooperating and collaborating with the Nazis all the while—tried to turn the populace away from any sympathy for the Allied cause by decrying the bombardment.

Laurenson narrates that “According to research carried out by Andrew Knapp, history professor at the UK’s University of Reading, ‘Roughly 75,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on the UK [including Hitler’s V missiles]. In France, it [was] in the order of 518,000 tonnes.’” Incredible, but apparently accurate. Some of the raids—especially the one pictured here that leveled Le Havre, killing 5,000 inhabitants of the city—would under today’s international agreements, probably be regarded as war crimes. More than 1,500 French towns were hit during the war.

DeGaulle must’ve lobbied Churchill, and FDR, to stop the raids that aimed to hit “marshaling areas,” as the Allies phrased it. But it was the conduct of Marshall Petain and his government that most concerned the Allies,. This topic, and the scale of French casualties, was taboo for many decades, with the moral ambiguity that had shrouded the war years in France. According to this report, many French were conflicted about the bombing campaign. They didn’t ‘support’ it, but many were ashamed of the conduct by the Vichy leaders, and hoped the Allies would prevail. In that context, the deaths of civilians was in some ways as expected, if not excused, as that of combatants. It was total war. Along with the above figure on the French casualties, at least 60,500 British civilians died from the German aerial bombardment. On D-Day itself, in 1944, 2,500 Allied combatants died, while about the same number of French civilians died that day.

Though I don’t excuse certain aspects of the Allied bombing, which has been examined and as far as I can tell, convincingly indicted in A.C. Grayling’s important book, Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan, I think I have a sense of some of the priorities and concerns that may have preoccupied all the Allied heads of state (Churchill and FDR, and also Mackenzie King, Canadian Prime Minister during the war, whose fighter pilots also flew bombing runs over France). They weren’t certain the Allies would win, and so believed in, or rationalized, some bombing that crossed an ethical line.  As for the crews who flew those missions they were lethal for them, too, for Laurenson adds about the British flyers: “Almost half of Bomber Command’s airmen were killed in action. Their missions, their commanders argued, would help win the war more quickly.”

In the case of Churchill, in particular, I don’t mean to cut him any slack he doesn’t deserve. I’ve read Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, where Churchill’s belligerence is on display, and in his own words for it’s a book assembled entirely from original documents. And, yet I must concede that he fought the war like he feared the Nazis might win, a possible outcome that would have been even more detestable than the moral crimes he committed, or may have committed.  I recommend you read Laurenson’s story here.

A Renovated Digital Home for the CBC Archives

Cool stuff on the Web from the CBC Archives is now accessible to virtually all computer users. The national broadcaster of Canada goes back to 1936 but until now their Internet archive was more frustrating than enlightening. Now, however a post on the CBC’s in-house blog explains that the old site has been updated, with a side benefit that MAC users–formerly shut out–should now have as full access as folks on Windows machines. It does look much better now and you can savor TV and radio clips of musicians Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Glenn Gould, writers Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Farley Mowat, and Pierre Berton, comedians Bruce McCullough and Scott Thompson from Kids in the Hall and Catherine O’Hara of SCTV and Patrick Watson* (the longtime broadcaster, not the current day musician), to name only a handful. I should add it’s not all about the artistic luminaries–the correspondents and journalists who’ve long made up the CBC, such as Patrick Watson* (the longtime broadcaster, not the current day musician) and the late Barbara Frum, co-host for many years of “As it Happens,” Canada’s “All Things Considered,” represent great broadcast talent. This archive is a veritable youtube for Canuckaphiles and honorary Canadians like me. For a taste of one artist, enjoy this 2 1/2 minute clip on stellar rapper Cadence Weapon, celebrating his selection in 2009 as Poet Laureate of Edmonton, Alberta.

*In 1979, one year after my family bookstore Undercover Books opened for business, Patrick Watson published an excellent suspense novel titled Alter Ego. My brother Joel read it and wrote to Patrick inviting him to visit our store. With the participation of his publisher, Viking, Patrick visited our store for an autographing and a great book party that moved from the store to my family’s nearby home. I recall that Patrick, an accomplished pilot, flew his own small plane from Toronto to Cleveland. I bumped into him in 2003 on the convention floor at Book Expo Canada. We had a pleasant reunion. He’s a grand fellow and has had a fascinating career as broadcaster, actor, author, and engaged citizen. Apart from the thriller Alter Ego, Patrick is also the author of a book in my art book library, Fasanella’s City, on the American painter known for his colorful canvases that depict May Day celebrations and demonstrations of workers’ rights amid clamorous scenes of urban density.

Lonesome Death of a Teen Actor

I never watched the Canadian TV show “Degrassi Junior High,” which the CBC broadcast from 1987-91, but I’ve been very touched by two recent articles about the strange, sad death of one of its teenage stars, Neil Hope, who played the character “Wheels.” Hope died alone in a Hamilton, Ontario rooming house in 2007, and was buried in an unmarked grave; surviving family members only recently learned of his lonesome passing at age 35.

In a piece for Newsweek/Daily Beast, Glynnis MacNicol, a Canadian writer living in New York, writes

“It’s painful to imagine anyone’s life ending on such a sad, unobserved note—but doubly so when one considers how deeply Hope’s TV persona resonated with an entire generation of Canadians. . . . Unlike their American counterparts, Degrassi kids were not a pretty or polished group. They looked pretty much like any other group of kids at that age at that time. They looked like the kids you went to school with. And they might have been; for the most part the producers of the show cast regular kids with no acting experience. As one of my Canadian friends put it to me when I broke the news to her, ‘Nobody on Degrassi was perfect. Everyone was ugly, full of embarrassing hair, zits, glasses. The girl in the wheelchair was really in the wheelchair. . . . It was honest.’”

MacNicol explains that the program was a realistic, veritable docudrama, about a group of Toronto adolescents struggling with the rites of passage that young people sometimes experience–substance abuse, pregnancy, and alienation from their families. In a New York Times obituary published this week, five years after the death of its subject, reporter Paul Vitello writes

“‘Wheels’ was a boy who stumbles through misfortunes before drifting into alcoholism, [drawn] broadly on the life of Mr. Hope, who never had formal acting training. . . . After the show’s end in 1991, [he] spoke openly about the wages of alcoholism, revealing that he was the child of alcoholics who had virtually abandoned him and had fed their drinking on his TV earnings. He said he wanted to convey a message to other teenagers whose parents were substance abusers: ‘It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Because it’s not your fault.'”

He was 19 when the program’s run ended.

“Something Fierce” Wins Canada Reads: True Stories

Congratulations to friends Emiko Morita, Jesse Finkelstein, and Scott McIntyre of Douglas & McIntyre Publishers of Vancouver for their book Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre being named winner of the “Canada Reads: True Stores” competition on CBC! It was brilliantly championed in this week-long on-air debate by musician Shad. The runner-up was Ken Dryden’s timeless hockey classic The Game. Other finalists during the week were On a Cold Road: Adventures in Canadian Rock by Dave Bidini, longtime member of the great band The Rheostatics; The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Valliant; and Prisoner of Tehran, a memoir by Marina Nemat. Hour-long discussions and debates on the five books have been held each day this week, carried on CBC Radio One, and on the CBC website, with each finalist championed, not by its author, but by an advocate. TV personality Alan Thicke boosted The Game, for instance, and also did a great job.

This was the first year Canada Reads was devoted to nonfiction books. The process began a few months ago with a longlist of fifty books, and through readers and fans voting for their favorite books, the crop was reduced to the shortlist of five. Despite issues I had with the judging at times seeming too much of a reality show, with books being eliminated one by one, and one advocate who I simply came to loathe, I think a months-long national reading fest like this is a great way to raise the awareness of books and reading among the widest possible population. I don’t suggest that the U.S. do this precisely, but initiatives with entire cities reading the same book have been quite successful. As members of the U.S. book community we certainly ought to continue experimenting with ways to heighten the visibility of great books and reading. Winners of Canada Reads invariably become huge national bestsellers. I find time after time that U.S. cultural industries–publishing and music especially–have a lot to learn from the ways that Canada promotes its arts and artists.

Something Fierce will be published in the US in August. I am getting a copy from D&M and will be writing about on this site.

[Feb. 10-This post has been updated with new information from the publisher in Vancouver about the forthcoming edition.]

Two Great Graphic Novels Coming as Ebooks

I just got an email from Montreal comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, a company that produces exceptionally fine graphic novels and comic nonfiction, announcing their first entry into the ebooks space with two books by artist/writer Chester Brown. I think their email is worth quoting at length, because this is a fine print publisher stepping in to ebooks and because of their ebook royalty, which they explain will be an equal share with their authors. This is especially topical, in light of Michael Chabon’s new arrangement with Open Road Media, which I’ve discussed in an earlier post today. Bravo to D&Q and Kobo! This is an exciting publishing collaboration. //more