From the Human Gasometer to Madam Lula on a Favorite Circus Poster

Some years ago during a visit to Scotland, I visited the West Highland town of Gairloch, and its excellent Heritage Museum, where I saw this great old circus poster on display, promoting a circus that was some years earlier performing in the nearby town of Poolewe. Recently, I came upon my photographic print of the poster and scanned it to publish on this blog, where in years past I’ve published other posts on circus topics, like this one titled “Life is a Carnival.”

I love the way posters like this vary the size, spacing, color, and fonts to bill each act and performer in distinctive way. I’ve typed it out so readers of this post could easily read the colorful copy the promoter wrote back in the day. There was no year on the poster, so I’m left to imagine that the circus might have active sometime in the first third of the twentieth century.

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

Reflections in an Art Nouveau Mirror—a #TBT Selfie from Scotland, 1986

On my first trip to Scotland, in 1986, I visited the sublime Hill House near Glasgow, in Helensburgh, Scotland, designed by the visionary architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). Glad I was able to snap this picture of myself enjoying the furnishings and surroundings. In a second picture here, you can see what Hill House looks like from the outside. 

#tbt The Day I Discovered My Two Long-lost Scottish Uncles

#‎tbt In 1989 I toured the Outer Hebrides in Scotland and met these two fellas in a wee shop on the island of Lewis. We became fast friends and I took their picture. The gentleman behind the counter served in WW1, which makes me think now he must’ve been in his 90s when I met him. He owned the shop and his pal kept him company there. I’ve always treasured meeting them.Two old guys on Lewis

Restoration of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow Masterpiece



Mackintosh bookOn Twitter today I learned that one of the greatest buildings in Europe–the Glasgow School of Art, designed by the brilliant Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928)–is undergoing a key restoration. The picture desk of the Glasgow Herald shared a story, Taking Great Panes, with photos of the process of restoring the windows in the building which first opened in 1899. Mackintosh was a pioneer of industrial design who placed delicate Art Deco motifs in such solid materials as steel and stone. He was also a notable typographer, furniture and fabric designer, and watercolorist. On the four separate trips I’ve made to Scotland over the years, I’ve visited the school several times and was always gobsmacked by the beauty and utility of the building. It was very impressive to see that Mackintosh’s creation is still in daily use by students and faculty. Consider that people in the building still enter the washrooms under the standard British signs for “Gents” and “Ladies,” which still sport the same lettering that Mackintosh created for them more than a century ago.

The windows are key to the building, as in the library where the glass rises from one story to the next, admitting the most light possible, so vital in Scotland where daylight fails early during many months of the year. It’s also a certainty that Scotland’s rugged climate has taken a toll on the hundreds of window panes that punctuate the stone facade.

I’m happy to say I have a personal connection to this building, and to Glasgow. A late friend, Isi Metzstein, whom I eulogized on this site when he died in January 2012, was a well-known architect and professor of architecture. His business partner and colleague for many years was Andrew Macmillan, one of the co-authors of the book I own on the Glasgow School of Art. It makes me happy to remember Isi when I think about the restoration of this handsome building, and to recall the many happy occasions I spent with him and the whole Metzstein family at their lovely home in Glasgow, which was designed with clear influences from the Mackintosh era. Below are photos I made from pages of the book, Mackintosh’s Masterwork: Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School of Art, and other sources. Please click here to see all pictures.

Donald Trump is “the Clown of New York” to a Defiant Scotsman

Update: After publishing the blog post below, I dug a bit deeper and discovered a quite nuanced view of the controversy that was published just as it began to heat up in 2007. It’s an excellent piece by UK journalist Ed Caesar that originally ran in the Times of London, now found at Mr. Caesar’s own website. At that juncture five years ago, Trump was awaiting several of the local approvals required to build the gargantuan complex that would hold not just a golf course, but 900 vacation cottages and a ten-story hotel with 450 guest rooms. Michael Forbes was then a pesky annoyance to Trump, while many Scottish politicians favored the development. Some of it has since been built, but Forbes is still standing strong, and just won Scotsman of the Year, as noted below. While it seems that the village of Balmedie was then leaning toward support of Trump’s project, it appears that trend has since flipped in favor of the antis, of whom Forbes is the most visible symbol. The familiar dynamic has kicked in where Trump’s obnoxious personalty and bloated rhetoric has become the dominant element in the story. If you have some time, I recommend you read Caesar’s piece, as well.

The website Common Dreams reports that Donald Trump has angered lots of people in Scotland with his determination to build profit-making golf courses on pristine land that many locals do not want developed in this way. A farmer in Aberdeenshire, Michael Forbes (pictured above), has defied Trump’s demands to sell him acreage from his land, prompting the rude American to denounce Forbes as “a village idiot” who “lives like a pig.” Now, Forbes has won a national contest as Scotsman of the Year, being named over such luminaries as Wimbledon champion Andy Murray. Forbes is quoted by Common Dreams:

“I went right off him the first time I met him. He was being all nicey, nicey and talking about how successful he was and how much money he had. That was it for me. I took an instant dislike to him. He called me a village idiot …but I think everyone knows by now that he’s the clown of New York.”

The press in Britain have lionized Mr. Forbes a 21st century ‘local hero,’ reminiscent of the Scottish character in the 1983 Bill Forsyth film with Burt Lancaster and Peter Riegert “Local Hero,” who convinces his town to resist the siren song of an oil company’s money. Sticking to the film analogy, a documentary has been released on the golf course controversy, “You’ve Been Trumped.” Here’s a trailer for it:

An advocacy group has also been formed to push back against the development, Tripping Up Trump. I’ve been to Scotland several times over the years and admire people I’ve met there and remain entranced by the countryside, even seeing it only in photos. Kudos to those saying, “No” to Donald Trump! H/t Don Van Natta, Jr. (@DVNjr) who shared the Common Dreams piece on Twitter.

Farewell to Scottish Friend, Architect Isi Metzstein

I was saddened recently to learn that Isi Metzstein, a longtime friend and the father in a family I’ve been close with for many years, died at his home in Glasgow, Scotland on January 10. Isi lived a remarkable life and was a well-regarded architect and teacher, as the obituaries that have run all over Britain attest, including prominent notices in the Independent (“Architect Hailed for Modernist Vision and Inspirational Teaching”) and the Guardian(“Innovative Architect Designed Remarkable Postwar Buildings”). //more . . .

“Least Cynical Place on Earth” as “Third Place”

“It was like the least cynical place on earth,” according to one customer quoted in the New York Times profile of Raconteur Books, a sweet second-hand bookstore and theater space set to close in early 2012. The owner of this Metuchen, NJ shop is not losing his lease or being forced out by his landlord, instead he said he “still love[s] being here and meeting the people. But I feel like I don’t want to be a shop clerk anymore. That’s what it boils down to.” A longtime bookseller myself, I sympathize with anyone who wearies of keeping a shop running day after day. At the same time, I love places like Raconteur and sympathize with the customers who feel bereft.

I recall one such place I frequented during a vacation in 1992 in Scotland. Located on the very special Hebridean isle of Mull, in Dervaig–a wee village that boasted the theatre with the smallest number of seats of any venue for plays in all Europe–it was called “Coffee&Books,” just down the lane from the B&B where my wife and I were lodging. I was sitting on a stool in the shop on a Saturday morning just as its owners were setting off on a holiday to Venice. Several locals had assembled to see them off, as with a bit of ceremony the owners anointed Colin, a sheephish lad in his mid or late teens, as shopkeeper in their week’s absence. Chiefly, this would mean brewing coffee and ‘stuffing’ the many weekend papers due to be delivered later that morning. The shop handled all the usual British papers–Telegraph, Daily Mail, Times of London, plus the Scottish papers, the Glasgow Herald, the Scotsman, and a few tabloids whose lurid front pages I had never seen. Turned out though, Colin really had his hands full. By noon that morning he was awash in a tangle of dozens of weekend supplements, funny papers, racy tabs and sober broadsheets. Things were looking a real mess. Customers began rolling in looking for their usual papers, ordinarily reserved under their name every weekend. Unfortunately, however, none were ready. At first a lot of kidding ensued as the regulars saw that Colin was overwhelmed. But as it became apparent to each new arrival that Colin wasn’t finding any humor in his plight, they shed their sweaters and anoraks and got down on the floor with him to, at first find their own papers. But these regulars didn’t just leave after assembling their own weekend reading, they helped Colin master the untidy piles all around him, sensing he was determined not to fail in the challenge that had been left in his lap.

Clearly, Raconteur Books and Coffee&Books had come to fill the vital role of a “third place” in the lives of their customers. The Wikipedia entry for Ray Oldenburg’s influential book, Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories About the “Great Good Places” at the Heart of Our Communities, describes the third place as “a term used in the concept of community building to refer to social surroundings separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. Oldenburg writes that third places are “important for civil society, democracy, and civic engagement.”

Someone may still step forward to take over Raconteur. If not, sadly, its regulars will soon have to to find a new venue for their shared passions. Meantime, the spirit of cooperation that prevailed at Coffee&Books struck me then and since as a stellar example of a microcosm for a healthy society.

January 13, 2011–Update: In a tweet this morning novelist and book critic Lev Grossman (@leverus) writes “The Raconteur bookshop in Metuchen, NJ is closing down on Sat night. I’m going to help them. By reading. Who’s w/ me?”