Sunday, December 21, 2008

R.I.P. Sir Harry Flashman, V.C,, K.C.B., K.C.I.E., etc.

As usual, I have a large stack of books that have been piling up over the term to read over Christmas, but none so eagerly anticipated as Flashman on the March by George McDonald Fraser. Alas, this was also a very bittersweet read for me, because as I blogged last February, George McDonald Fraser died on January 2, 2008 at the age of 82. This of course means that Flashman on the March, the twelfth novel in the Flashman series, would also be the last.

While in P.E.I. this summer, I devoured a stack of books comparable to the one I now have with me, with Flashman and the Angel of the Lord, Flashman and the Dragon, and Flashman and the Tiger among them. I had also purchased Flashman on the March, but decided to wait until Christmas to read it -- delaying the final gratification of an unread Flashman novel until an appropriate time.

And now I'm done. Sigh. For those unfamiliar with the series, Fraser published the first novel, Flashman, in 1969. Harry Flashman was a character in Thomas Hughes' best-selling Victorian novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, who was a bully and a coward, ultimately expelled for drunkeness. Fraser picks up on the seventeen-year-old Flashman's story at the moment of expulsion, when he returns home to announce his shame to his father. Flashman pere, a drunkard of failing fortunes carrying on with a much younger mistress, announces that there is nothing else for it but for young Harry to enter the army on a purchased commission. And so he does, but not before taking a romp in the sack with his father's mistress. Upon being posted to a unit in Scotland, Flashman then seduces an empty-headed beauty named Elspeth, and being found out, is forced to marry her by her wealthy industrialist father.

So sets the tone for the novels to come: Harry is the ultimate bully, womanizer, cad, bounder, and coward. He is posted to Afghanistan and is present for the retreat through the Khyber Pass and the Siege of Jalalabad, and comports himself with cowardly elan throughout -- always the first to run, always behaving reprehensively whenever his own skin is at stake, and never passing up an opportunity to seduce a startling array of beautiful women. Managing to take refuge in a small fort outside Jalalabad during the siege, he spends it prostrate with fear on his bunk will the enlisted men curse him for a coward. When the Afghans breach the fort, in a moment of delirious terror he scoops up the Union Jack and regimental colours in the hopes that if he presents them to the attackers, he might be spared. As it happens, he doesn't have time to hand them over, as he gets knocked unconscious and buried by a falling wall. He is the only survivor in the fort, and when he is found by the counterattacking British, they see him cradling the flag and colours as if defending them with his very person. All of which makes him a national hero, feted by the Duke of Wellington himself and awarded the Victoria Cross by the Queen. Not a word of his cowardice comes to light.

And so it goes for twelve novels, with Flashman a remarkably clear-eyed observer of history and candid commentator on his own vices. He falls entirely reluctantly into historical crisis-points like Afghanistan, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Harper's Ferry incident, and the Indian Mutiny. The series' conceit is that the novels are the secret memoirs of Harry Flashman, written in his 90s, found by George McDonald Fraser "wrapped in oilskin" at an estate auction in the late 1960s. McDonald presents himself as "editor" of the memoirs, offering footnotes commenting on the historical context Flashman describes.

The fact of the matter is -- and this is something attested to by numerous historians of the mid-late Victorian period -- Fraser's novels are extremely accurate in their history. They are in their way the ultimate intersection for a literary scholar and historical dilletante like myself: historical education wrapped up in a great story.

Flashman on the March has Flashy co-opted into the 1867 British mission to rescue prisoners held by the mad King Theodore in Abyssinia. As usual, Flashman finds himself where he is largely through his own vices: returning from Mexico to Europe, he dallies with the daughter of a German nobleman during the cruise, and is found out in his behaviour upon making port in Trieste. To escape the retribution of the noble, he takes on a mission to deliver funds for the upcoming mission in Abyssinia -- and once there, is suborned to the mission as a secret emissary to rival tribes in order to buy support for the British project.

I won't retell more of the story than that, other than to share a very typical Flashman moment. His guide (of course) is a beautiful young woman of noble blood, with whom he has torrid sex all the way along. She has saved his life on a few occasions, and Flashy finds himself quite affectionate with her -- all of which matters for naught when Flashy's skin is at stake. They find themselves, fleeing pursuers, headed directly over the massive Tisiat Falls, and Flashman manages to snag some low-hanging branches, with his beautiful guide clinging to his leg:

There was only one thing to be done, so I did it, drawing up my free leg and driving my foot down with all my force at Uliba's face staring at me open-mouthed, half-submerged as she clung to my other knee. I missed, but caught her full on the shoulder, jarring her grip free, and away she went, canoe and all, the gunwale rasping against my legs as it was whirled away downstream. One glimpse I had of the white water foaming over those long beautiful legs, and then she was gone. Damnable altogether, cruel waste of good womanhood, but what would you? Better one should go than two, and greater love hath no man then this, that he lay down someone else's life for his own.

Of course, nothing is too easy for Flashman, and his erstwhile lover and guide survives to wreak vengeance later ...

So no more Flashman novels. I guess there is nothing else for it but to start with the first one again ...

Monday, December 15, 2008

Who throws a shoe? Honestly!

This just in: in the midst of George W. Bush's valedictory press conference in Iraq, a reporter threw his shoes at him.

That is all. Return to your normal activities.

Thirty-six more days.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Christmas traditions, new and old

It doesn’t really feel much like Christmas for me yet … given that I don’t bother with decorating my own place, as I don’t spend Christmas there, and I don’t start shopping until I’m back in Ontario, my run-ins with Christmas spirit tend to be incidental: stuff on TV (such as the Iron Chef chocolate battle last night), the decorations in the English office, occasional Christmas songs on the radio waking me up in the morning … And tonight I go to see a friend play Bob Cratchit in a musical version of A Christmas Carol. So there’s that.

Even so, the rhythm of my life now brings with it a new set of associations that inevitably start simmering Christmas anticipation, and perversely enough, one of the big ones is grading final essays in December. The latter stages of grading provoke a shift at the molecular level as the end of the semester comes into sight and I feel increasingly inclined to watch and listen to Christmas-themed things. One of the big ones for me is listening to Dylan Thomas read “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” something I have blogged about in previous Decembers.

And there’s also Christmas carols … but only some of them. Come Christmastime, my decidedly un-religious nature experiences a fundamental contradiction, as I tend to lean more toward traditional Christmas music: I love the more overtly religious carols, especially when performed chorally or orchestrally. I also have a weakness for the mid-century crooners, Bing Crosby in particular. I do tend to cringe when contemporary pop stars record Christmas albums … I hear enough Mariah Carey and Celine Dion in shopping malls through the year without needing to hear their deformations of “Santa Baby” or “Silent Night.”

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan doing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” is now one of my favourite versions of my favourite carol, as is Loreena McKennit’s “Good King Wenceslas.” There’s also the new-old classics, by which I mean the things I grew up with—such as Bing Crosby and David Bowie doing “The Little Drummer Boy,” and pretty much all of Boney M’s Christmas album (was that laughter I heard in the cheap seats??). And of course the twin pinnacles of my childhood Christmas: John Denver with the Muppets and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, both of which are in my iTunes library.

(And to digress from music for a moment, I should add two more recent additions to my annual Christmas viewing: Love, Actually and the Christmas episode from season one of The West Wing, the latter of which takes first place in the list Television Guaranteed To Make Chris Cry No Matter How Many Times He Watches It. Dear god, I’m getting a lump in my throat just writing this).

And then there are the new-new classics, songs you hear and immediately know they’re there to stay. Which this year happens to be my boys doing “I Believe in Father Christmas”:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New branded politics

There’s a great moment in the first season of Mad Men when the men of Sterling Cooper—who have effectively hitched themselves to Richard Nixon’s would-be presidential star—view a JFK television ad, and suddenly realize what they’re up against. The ad is peppy, happy, cartoonish—a montage of image’s of the handsome Kennedy and his wife alongside a series of random Americans of various ages and stations (though not races or ethnicities)—and is utterly substanceless. Don Draper and company are taken aback by the breathtaking shallowness of the ad, but as ad men recognize the ad’s persuasive power ... especially when compared to Nixon’s ponderous and stern catalogue of his qualifications for the presidency.

One of the things I love about Mad Men is the way in which it so frequently subverts our accustomed understanding of certain cultural and historical moments and artefacts. The mythos of John F. Kennedy for us today (the version other than the unremitting lothario) is the eloquent and earnest, brilliant and dedicated leader who surrounded himself with the greatest minds of his generation. Nixon resides in the imagination as the self-obsessed, pathologically dishonest Machiavelli willing to do anything to attain and consolidate power. The first we like to imagine would have been a force for good had he not been cut down; the latter inaugurated a politics of skulduggery and character assassination that has been the norm until the recent election of Barack Obama.

Of course, neither of these portraits is entirely true or fair: Kennedy and his “best and brightest” have to bear much of the blame for Vietnam, and Nixon was (for all his faults) an accomplished administrator and diplomat. But their respective mythologies persist, which is why seeing the JFK ad was somewhat jarring—it has frequently been said that Kennedy was the first television president, that his victory was a product of this new medium that allowed his image of youthfulness, combined with his accomplished oratory, to sway the electorate. But those looking back on Kennedy with rose-coloured glasses tend to associate his televisual appeal not with the vapid TV ad seen above, but with such historic moments as the Berlin speech. It is, hence, a bit of a shock to the system to see said vapid ad and realize that Kennedy’s campaign not only exploited the shallowness of televisual sensibilities, but blazed a trail we’ve been walking since.

I’ve been musing on these questions this morning because of two things. One, I’ve been reading The Assault on Reason by Al Gore (speaking of candidates partially hamstrung by ponderous earnestness); two, there’s a particular turn of phrase that has been increasingly irritating me in the aftermath of our recent parliamentary silliness: the frequent recourse of liberal MPs and political commentators to the discussion of how to recuperate “the Liberal brand.”

I’ve always been a fan of Al Gore, and have a deep respect for him as a politician, statesman and just generally as a human being. The frequent assaults on him since 2000 by both the conservative and mainstream press have exemplified a particularly pernicious form of American anti-intellectualism that irritates the hell out of me, as well and scaring me a great deal too (plus, I have a certain sympathy for stodgy and pompous know-it-alls, having been justifiably tarred with that brush myself many, many times). The Assault on Reason is an extraordinary book, and one I’m now wishing I’d read when it was first published—though had I done that, it would have filled me with despair at the nadir of the Bush Administration and the uncertain prospect of what was to succeed them. It’s worth reading still however (Obama hasn’t been sworn in yet—forty-one days!), because it offers a trenchant critique of what happens when we allow mendacity and misdirection to rule political discourse in the place of reasoned and measured debate.

While we wait with bated breath to see whether Obama’s election will usher in a new era of pragmatic and transparent leadership based on rational debate, our own political situation in Canada makes me recommend The Assault on Reason as a fine book to be put in your loved ones’ stockings. Or perhaps, in this political climate, the stockings of your unloved-ones. Even as the Bush/Cheney/Rove style of politics is being shown the door by the American electorate, our own PM continues to play zero-sum partisan hardball and consolidate his party’s power by any means necessary. To quote Rick Mercer: “We've seen unheard of cooperation between political rivals all over the industrialized world. But not in Canada. Not with Stephen Harper ... No my friends, he has one goal and one goal only and it has nothing to do with governing: how can he use this crisis to destroy the opposition?”

What is perhaps most galling is the degree to which he continues to succeed. He made a drastic misstep that led to him almost being ousted by the coalition, but somehow convinced our GG to prorogue Parliament. He’ll return in January unrepentant but with a budget with enough gifts for the electorate that the coalition—which already looks dead in the water—won’t have a leg to stand on. And he’ll have managed, through some bizarre bit of political misdirection, to have transformed his blunder into political capital. And to those who say you can’t argue with success, I cry bullshit.

Why? Because it’s not about who wins and loses in Parliament, it’s about who wins and loses in Canada, and at the moment we’re all losing big time: because we have a locked and shuttered House of Commons at a time when we need leadership, because we have a prime minister more interested in holding onto power than genuinely working with the opposition for the greater good, because we have an inept and factious opposition, and because we’re pretty much a laughing stock. When Jon Stewart said the other night on The Daily Show that Canada’s biggest export is jokes about Canadians, I really couldn't do much more than sigh and silently agree.

All of which is why the incessant argument about “the Liberal brand” makes me want to knock people’s heads together. A political party is not a pair of sneakers or a celebrity fragrance, but we’ve arrived at a point where that’s exactly how we treat it. Harper &Co., according to a news report I heard yesterday, already have a series of Michael Ignatieff attack ads ready to roll out. Presumably they also had a series of Bob Rae attack ads in the can, and undoubtedly they’re assembling anti-coalition attack ads in the unlikely eventuality that the coalition is still drawing breath in January. The Conservatives have become masters of branding: they know that this is the strategy by which one comes to value or devalue something based on a set of associations detached from the innate value of a given object. They have been waging a very successful war against the Liberal brand since the waning days of Chretien, and have indeed succeeded in devaluing it dramatically.

Which is why we should remember that we're not talking about a consumer product here but a complex of elected officials, staffers, ideas, policies, and voters that cannot and should not be reduced to a set of simplistic catch-phrases, talking-points, and visual cues.

Which begs the question of why the Liberals allow Harper to control the debate. Every time an MP expresses their confidence in the “Liberal brand,” they’re playing a game they’ve been losing consistently. I can’t say I’m without ambivalence about Michael Ignatieff, but I take comfort in the fact that the Liberals seem to be getting their act together and ending, or at least suspending, their crippling internecine squabbles (the operative phrase here being “seem to be”). But Mr. Ignatieff: please don’t talk about the Liberal brand. Please don’t play Harper’s game. Granted, I’m not entirely sure what the alternative is, but then I’m not the newly appointed party leader presumably surrounded by a lot of smart political operatives. There is one glimmer of hope, however, which happens to lie to our south. Promise me you’ll think about how to change things.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Friday miscellany

  1. My friend Jason’s Facebook status update sums it all up for me: “Jason is boggled that even as our laissez-faire partisan neighbours to the south managed a recovery package in days, all our morons managed was a time-out. With pay.” At a moment like this, it strikes me that doing nothing is about the worst thing a government can do. Even an election would be preferable. Not very, but still.

  2. Everything I have predicted about the course of events since the coalition became a gleam in the Opposition’s eye has been wrong. I was thinking I should just stop prognosticating, but when the G-G gave Harper permission to dissolve Parliament, I came to the conclusion that I simply don’t possess an irrational enough mind to see into the crystal ball of our federal politics.

  3. In happier news, the semester is over and I will be winging home to Ontario in slightly less than two weeks. This was a good semester, and after the perfect storm that was my fall term last year, it felt like a walk in the park. I actually managed to get some of my own writing done, which felt so decadent that I had to remind myself that that’s technically 40% of my job description—40% research, 40% teaching, 20% administration. The problem was that this time last year the math was more like 40% research, 40% teaching, 60% administration. Which is what happens when you leave the math to English professors.

  4. Forty-six days of Bush's presidency left.

  5. It occurred to me recently that I came roaring back to my blog after a two-month absence largely on my obsession with the American election. And now I’ve been going on about Canadian politics. Not wanting to turn this into an exclusively political blog, I shall do my best to reinsert more literary and personal stuff (i.e. things I actually know something about). That being said, this essay is one of the smartest things I’ve read since Obama’s election, and articulates some of the things I’ve thought way better than I ever could.

  6. Teaching this term was a joy. I had two classes, my standard 20th-century U.S. fiction, and a fourth-year seminar on American Lit after 1945. In both cases, I decided to mix things up a bit by giving each course a specific theme rather than just doing a typical survey. In the case of the former, I decided to take advantage of Obama’s candidacy and focus on novels dealing with issues of race and identity; in the latter, we looked at post-9/11 fiction. The 9/11 course, while interesting, was a bit tougher—because, as it turns out, most novels written about September 11th really suck. At the same time however, we did Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which is an utterly fantastic read and helped balance out stinkers like John Updike’s Terrorist. In both classes, though, I had some amazing students … which really is the rule rather than the exception here. I am consistently impressed and often blown away by the students I have; it’s quite the privilege.

  7. Speaking of, my student Emily introduced me to the genius that is the comedy of Dylan Moran, who you may remember as the irritating David in Shaun of the Dead. His stand-up is brilliant: the following clip in which he expounds on the nature of Irish vs. English sensibilities, and Protestant vs. Catholic had me laughing so hard I was close to asphyxiating myself:

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What I imagined our leaders saying as I watched them debate the coalition on the muted TVs at the gym while I ran on the treadmill yesterday

"OK, so remember all that stuff I said last week? You guys know I was joking, right? I mean, come ON … all that stuff about cutting off your funding? We were just hazing you. New government and all, having some fun with the Opposition. It’s a tradition! OK, well, it’s a new tradition, one that myself and my fellow Conservative MPs were hoping to get started. But NOOOOOO … you spoilsports have to go ahead and ruin the joke by taking it all totally seriously. I thought Canadian politicians were supposed to have a sense of humour. I mean, don’t you guys watch This Hour Has 22 Minutes? I mean, we’re hilarious. I was just punkin’ y’all! So let’s just forget this Coalition silliness, and go back to where we were before I said all that stuff. Which, like I said, I toooootally didn’t mean ….

"OK. OK. OK. Please don’t take the PMO away from me. Please!! You guys don’t understand what it’s like … I NEED to be Prime Minister! It’s like a drug. I can’t give it up. PLEASE! Look, it’s my campaign guys’ fault … after we did all those ads, they took the sweater vest away, and happy fun cuddly Stephen went away too, and hardass wants-to-be-President Stephen came roaring back. Let me put the sweater vest on again! I can do this, I swear! Don’t you understand? THEY TOOK AWAY THE SWEATER VEST!!"

(For some reason sounding an awful lot like Ian McShane) "Listen, you oil-sands worshipping shitheel cocksucker. You, my friend, just bought your cocksucker Conservative fucking party one long-term ass-fucking. You call this a fucking power grab, you with your wanna-be fucking executive branch? You fucking George W. fucking Bush clone? What you see before you, my monumentally arrogant friend, is a parlifuckingmentary solution to your pale imitation of those American Karl Rove cocksuckers. You want to be president, emigrate to the United fucking States of America. You want to be Canadian, you just bend over there and take our Westminster procedure like a polite little fucknut."

"I would like to correct Mr. Flaherty’s characterization of our agreement as the “New Socialist, New Separatist Coalition” and remind the honourable member that four years ago his party’s leader sought an identical agreement with the NDP and Bloc Quebecois. And I would like to further chastise the honourable member for speaking not only hypocritically, but for employing such incendiary and divisive language. We are not the “New Socialist, New Separatist Coalition,” Mr. Speaker. We are the Communist-Centrist Coalition of Partitionists, or CCCP. HA! That’s right, you bourgeois pigs, you running dogs! WE GOT YOU! At long last, the glorious revolution may commence! Добро пожаловать к соединению канадских советских социалистических республик!!"

Monday, December 01, 2008

Coalition concerns

I read this funny comment today by Matthew Yglesias, who writes one of my favourite political blogs:

“One happy result of recent election outcomes is that now liberal Americans get to tease our liberal Canadian friends about the role reversal — they’re the ones saddled with government by rightwingers, and they’re the ones who’ll need to flee ‘cross the border to enter the bountiful Land of Obama.”

Except, as he points out, possibly not for much longer. I obviously have had my head in the sand for the last few days, because it wasn’t until last night, listening to Cross-Country Checkup on CBC as I made dinner, that I first heard of the Conservatives’ massively controversial budget and the response of the opposition parties. I’m still a little hazy on the details of what made this budget such a “F*ck You!,” but the consensus I heard last night, from both sides of the political spectrum, was that Harper’s arrogance finally got the better of him—promising a conciliatory approach after the election, and then explicitly poking the opposition in the eye with a stick.

Which brings us to the two possible routes from here (or three, if we take into account the oh-so-Canadian strategy of doing nothing) being the opposition getting together to bring about another election, or the opposition literally getting together and forming a coalition government. The former prospect makes me want to jab the aforementioned stick in my own eye, but the latter is kind of exciting. Not necessarily because I think a coalition government would be the answer to our prayers or the solution to our problems, but because it would have the effect of driving federal Canadian politics out of its rut, and make three of our four major parties actually work together.

Also, it makes federal Canadian politics more interesting. The last election was such a dour affair because its outcomes, and indeed the process of the campaigns, were so predictable as to be practically foregone conclusions. I can’t remember the last time Canadian politics ever actually inspired me … actually, it’s entirely possible that my country’s politics have never inspired me, which is extremely sad. In fact, one of the last times I heard any of our leaders say something that moved me was when Rick Mercer interviewed Paul Martin on the October 28 episode of his show; Martin said “My father understood that government has a really positive role to play in the lives of people. You start with individual freedom, and then the question becomes, ‘Well, how the heck do make sure that people have that individual freedom?’ Well, if you’re not born to privilege, then you don’t have the same freedoms as people who are, and government has a responsibility to put you in that position with the best education, the best health care. That was my father’s belief, and it’s certainly mine.”

It says something about our current state of affairs that I really miss Paul Martin.

So I’m profoundly interested to see what happens should the opposition give this coalition idea the old college try. I suspect if it goes forward we’ll see Bob Rae as its nominal leader, because Stephane Dion would be a non-starter with the Bloc, and Ignatieff a non-starter with the NDP; Bob Rae, given his history with the New Democrats and massive amount of experience to boot, will likely rise to the top. The big question is the composition of the cabinet: the Bloc can’t possibly expect that a separatist would be an acceptable prime minister to the rest of the country, but they’ll have to be given something. Some key portfolios, at the very least, would be dropped in their laps.

I must admit, I am slightly gleeful at the fact that this prospective coalition will necessarily give the party of separatism a hand in government, largely because it’s exactly the kind of surreal logic that surfaces in Canadian political life from time to time that makes me love my country that much more. The very first comment on Matthew Yglesias’s post read “A separatist party joining a coalition government? Man, Canada can be weird sometimes.” Yup, we certainly can—and we’re not even mentioning the Trudeau years, or Mackenzie King’s séances, or Sir John A’s drunken whistle-stop campaign speeches.

But it also, I think, speaks to something in the Canadian character, in finding strength and consensus in accommodating difference. And to those calling in to Rex Murphy’s show last night with apocalyptic predictions of Canada’s demise should the Bloc get ANY power, I ask you this: have you not been paying attention to Quebec all this time? Separatism gains steam when Quebec feels disenfranchised, and withers on the vine when Quebec wields genuine political clout in Ottawa. Paradoxically, giving the Bloc a seat at the table in a coalition government would, I honestly believe, do more to marginalize extreme separatists than aid them.

On the other hand, the enfranchisement of Quebec at the expense of the Harper government, while denuding Quebec separatist sentiments, is more than likely to foster them out west, especially in Alberta. One caller last night hit the nail on the head when he observed that such an unlikely coalition would be read by Albertans as representative of the lengths Quebec and Ontario will go to claw back power from the western provinces and deny them a voice in the governance of the country.

So we’ll see. It’s all a great reminder that democracy is an intractably messy thing. I think it’s moments like this that Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government in the world … except for all the others.