Saturday, June 30, 2012

Culture watch: who am I?

Image of biker jacket from pinterest

From ancient times, people have worn badges that identify them with their ethnicity, religion, or social status. These identifiers may be garments, hairstyles (including styles of beard or moustache), or jewellery. Think Muslim scarves, monks' tonsures, Sikh bangles.

We who live in liberal societies may delude ourselves that we have no such badges, but that would be a mistake. We may not be consciously aware of displaying badges of identity, but we display them all the same. Think Nike shoes (status), multiple ear and face rings (rebellion?), or open shirt buttons (freedom?) In some societies, this would be seen as an unacceptable state of undress).

In today's cosmopolitan world, the badges of identity are becoming mixed and mingled in fascinating ways. Burquas may be worn with Nikes, and baseball caps with...well, you get the idea.

The other day on the train, I sat behind a middle-aged man whose identity badges seemed to me to clash. First there were the silver filigree earrings he wore in both ears and on his eyebrows. Then, flowing from the hole in the back of his baseball cap was a mane of wavy auburn hair that any woman would envy. In the distant days when I came of age, long hair on a man was a badge of rebellion against the consumer society, a signal of belongingness with the youth who espoused making love not war. Long hair supported peace and flower power.

Times change though, and the teens and twenty-somethings who used to say "never trust anyone over thirty" aged and hauled in their horns. As thirty-somethings, they no longer identified with the same badges. Eventually, the longhairs who clung onto their ragged jeans and tie-dyed t-shirts into middle age were dismissed as refugees from the sixties. They were discounted by others of their generation as people who had been unable to move on. 

To get back to the outfit of my fellow commuter, it seemed to me that his clothing clashed with his face and hair, for he was dressed in standard black motor cycle leathers, marked with the Harley Davidson brand. He wore heavy boots on his feet.

As an outfit, this get-up displayed a high level of creativity; I was further surprised when he turned to look out the window and I caught a glimpse of a well-trimmed moustache that covered only the central portion of his upper lip, and a neat goatee below clean-shaven cheeks.

As a visual cue to signal his status and sub-culture affiliation, this outfit and hairdo left me guessing. A biker with soft hair and a soft heart? Or just someone who doesn't want to be categorized, and so chooses to mix his badges to keep people guessing.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

I love hearing buskers in train stations


It began at the entrance to South Kensington in London in 1973. The tiny young singer had long blonde hair and the most beautiful soprano voice. The song was Streets of London, a popular ballad of the time.

Today a violinist was playing in Burrard Station in the mid-afternoon. The music followed us up the escalator, enclosing riders in a light ethereal embrace.

The curly-haired violinist wielded the bow with passionate enthusiasm. I paused and dug in my backpack. Wanting to encourage him to retain such faith in his art, I dropped a toonie in his violin case. He nodded his thanks, as best he could with a fiddle under his chin.

He had CDs for sale too -- Fiddlestix, it said on the cover. The Toronto Celtic band, or just this lone man? It didn't matter, because the recordings were not what I wanted. It was the moment of surprise and delight of stepping onto a train platform, or an escalator, and unexpectedly hearing live music.

As I ascended to the street on the second escalator, the violin music that floated up with me came to a flourishing end. At the same time, a flock of birds flew low beneath the open glass canopy of the station. The moment was perfect.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer

Cover image from Simon Mawer

In the late 1920s, a pair of forward-looking honeymooners meet a modernist German architect and ask him to design them a house in their native Czechoslovakia. They want nothing ornate or traditional, nothing that clings to the past, and Rainer von Abt fulfills their dreams brilliantly.

The house he creates is bold and unique, with an onyx wall, a travertine floor, and an audacious living room made almost entirely of glass. Transparent it may be, but the Glass Room harbours secrets, even before the couple's children are born.

In their lovely house, Viktor and Liesel entertain artists, musicians, intellectual and political friends "while outside the storm gathers." In spite of the transparency of the house, they continue to harbour secrets from each other.

With the rise of Nazism, pressure on the couple builds from outside the glass walls as well as within them. Viktor is a Jew, and so is Oskar, the husband of Liesel's best friend Hana. Oskar and Hana stay but Viktor is determined to leave the country. Transferring the ownership of his factories to his non-Jewish father-in-law, Viktor prepares to move his family to Switzerland, "an island in the midst of disaster."

Before they get away, however, refugees arrive from Vienna, and Viktor feels compelled to act, even though Liesel considers the refugees a problem for "'governments not individuals.'"

When actual refugees arrive at the glass house, the couple come face to face with a secret revealed and the resulting dilemma.

After the glass house is abandoned to a caretaker and then taken over during the German occupation, Hana undergoes a bizarre ritual in the former home of her friends, in the name of Nazi "science."

The opening scene of  this fascinating novel by Simon Mawer is also the return to the glass house, after history has bulldozed the individuals in its path. Viktor and Liesel have raised their children in America after a escaping from Europe on a train with a "cargo of secrets and lies, and silences."

Hana and her husband have endured different but terrible fates. A Nazi scientist who has tried to drown himself in his work despairs because he believes his love has been "murdered by circumstance."

This chilling story brings the reader face to face with the chaos and madness of the Nazi preoccupations and occupations of Europe before and during World War II.

On the other hand, a redemptive aspect also portrays the characters as they rise above their personal suffering to a kind of nobility in the face of the inhumanity of war and Nazism.

The novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jubilee barge and cultural gulf

Royal Barge moored on the Thames at Richmond, May 2012

As a Canadian, I've known the Queen since she ascended the throne when I was two. I still have the souvenir biscuit tin my mother bought to celebrate her Coronation.

Seeing the Royal Barge on the Thames a few weeks before the recent Jubilee celebrations made me think about the differing cultural attitudes between Canada and the UK.

Though in practice the application of our democracy has been and remains deeply flawed, Canadians still place great value on the social ideal of egalitarianism.

The whole idea of monarchy, with its ancient practice of male primogeniture and the Royal motto of Dieu et mon droit flies in the face of the notion of equal rights for all.

Technically, Canada is a monarchy, but it doesn't feel like one. A great deal of our loyalty to Elizabeth II stems from historic familiarity. After her era, will Canadians be willing to extend such loyalty to her son Charles? I find it hard to imagine.

Yet even though today the idea of inheriting a throne seems weirdly outdated, the presence of a monarch (even though she does not govern) does lend government a feeling of stability. While elected Members come and go, the Queen remains.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The brolley brigade

 Photo by

We're having a lot of rain for the time of year. I carry an umbrella in the car and keep one in my office, though I can't recall when I last used either. Even so, besides my husband's golf umbrella, for use in the soccer field, we have several. Not entirely sure where they came from. I didn't buy any of them.

My non-use of umbrellas goes way back. It was a conscious decision I made when first I moved to this rainy city. A hooded jacket worked well if the rainfall was heavy; otherwise, I told myself, a little water never hurt anyone. Walking in the rain was poetic and romantic, and made my hair curlier.

In April, when I was packing for London, another city famous for rain and umbrellas, I debated about whether to pack a small folding one my daughter had left behind. In the end I didn't, figuring if I could negotiate Vancouver brolleyless, London shouldn't be a problem. Luckily, I did take along a transparent plastic poncho with a hood -- left over from my days as a Girl Guider.

During the three weeks I spent in London, it rained nearly every day. Still, I stubbornly resisted buying an umbrella I would have to either abandon in London or carry home to add to my collection. In the end, I did buy a water-resistant rain jacket with a hood, but that's another story.

My decision not to join the brolley brigade is nothing against umbrellas. I love the Impressionist paintings of wet Paris streets teeming with umbrellas as much as the next person. I love the image of a the London brolley brigade too, though now it seems more of a memory than a reality. In today's London, City men in suits often get their gelled hair and the shoulders of their jackets damp as they dash for the Tube or the bus.

Still, I have a certain fondness for The Umbrella Shop on West Broadway. When I arrived in Vancouver in 1967, it was still downtown on Pender Street - a whole store dedicated to umbrellas.

At the time, I had no idea that Vancouver Umbrellas, as it was called then, was established in 1935 by the patriarch of a family of European emigrants who started in Toronto, then moved to Vancouver upon hearing this city had more rain. Written here by Cory Flader, the history of Vancouver's first and only business devoted strictly to brolleys reads like a social history of the city and the century.

Today, The Umbrella Shop has an online catalogue and four branches. In 2010, it was invited by the City of Vancouver to participate in a green initiative. The factory, likely the last of its kind in North America, is located above the store. It still manufactures 15% of the umbrellas sold, and also does reasonably priced repairs -- by post for those who do not live in Vancouver.

Personally, I hope this shop, a piece of Vancouver history, carries on for a long time to come, sheltered from economic and social storms, even while its local products shelter the buyers from the climatic storms that are bound to come soon. After all, as the saying goes, this is the Wet Coast.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Strange sidewalk markings

Photo: Great Northern Way, looking East toward Clark Drive

First there were paths and tracks through the forest, then came dirt roads. Later, people improved their roads with cobblestones or gravel, and still later, with asphalt, or pavement.

Today's paved roads are covered with an astonishing array of patterns, words and symbols. Airport runways have lines and numbers that make sense to pilots, though to descending passengers they appear arcane.

Highways have white and yellow lines -- single, double, broken, solid -- to make drivers aware of the safety and legality of passing. Speedometer test sections are painted onto some roads so that drivers can check the accuracy of their speedometer gauges.

Until recently, helicopters were used to patrol for speed using road markings. Words are painted on roadways too. STOP is one example; others are SLOW and SCHOOL ZONE.

Possibly because the United Kingdom is one of the few nations where left-hand driving is the norm, London pavements are painted with the legend, LOOK LEFT, sometimes with the added illustration of a large pair of stylized eyes. JK Roadmarkings have posted a variety of complex patterns of lines and other symbols used there.

The painted road above is a recent change. This intersection lies between my workplace and King Edward SkyTrain station, and before I went on holiday, the crosswalks were definitely not green. This the first time I've seen bright swathes of green paint used on a city street. Now I'm watching the roads for new developments:  clearly this is a happening art.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

In this latest of the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency Series, Alexander McCall Smith has once again conveyed the themes his loyal readers have come to expect. With flashes of humour, he holds up the mirror of human imperfection, yet does so as gently as the boiling of the stews we frequently see on the stove of Mma Ramotswe.

This time, the gently boiling stew of the newly married Grace Makutsi is featured, as she and her husband Phuti Radhiphuti entertain an illustrious guest. Her persoanl flaws of vanity, ambition, and outspokenness come sharply into focus; yet we love and forgive her. After all, without that ambition, Grace might have remained a poor girl down in Bobonong. She might never have gone to secretarial college at all, never have achieved the pinnacle of 97% in the exams, never have met Mma Ramotswe, or joined the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency.

Through the crisis of the orphan farm matron, Mma Potokwane, we are shown the difficulties that arise when "the lips say one thing and the heart says another." We are reminded to find time to pursue old dreams, and that "'the human pretty much the same wherever one goes.'"

This novel returns again and again to the small but simple things that matter. With a frazzled Mma Ramotswe, we enjoy calming cups of bush tea, and watch with relief as it "begin to do its work" of soothing the drinker. We are reminded of the simple joy of sharing food. Out in the bush, we see three women friends at a tiny rural outpost, sitting beside a fire, enjoying a meal together within a stone's throw of the mysterious Kalahari.

In Mma Ramostswe's garden, we are treated, along with her guest, to a view of a tree with its "very fine" leaves, a salubrious reminder of the earth who feeds us.

Thanks to the carpenter, Thomas, we experience the vicarious satisfaction of seeing a cheater get his comeuppance without fanfare. And thanks to Clovis Anderson's strange confession, we see again the depth of Mma Ramotswe's understanding heart, her ability to bring comfort to the places it is needed, to remind us to be grateful for our many simple blessings.

Occasionally, unmistakeable intrusions of the author's voice are what move the reader to laughter, as when Phuti innocently suggests that the reason for Clovis Anderson's sadness is that he writes books, citing as evidence for this view the "sad-looking photographs of authors on the covers."

Above all the human activity, both bumbling and graceful, there is the unbroken blue of the Botswana sky. The themes of the story are underpinned by the logic, wisdom and values of old Botswana.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The unbearable lightness of fluff

Photo: This is not snow, but cottonwood down, caught in the crevices of a paved footpath. I took the photo in Bear Creek Park.

When the cottonwoods shed the light fluffy seed casings, the "cotton" for which they are named, it floats down more slowly than an early snowfall in a cold dry climate.

It is so light that it drifts into cracks and crevices, blown there by the slightest movements of air.

If doors are left open, it drifts into the house and rides in a leisurely fashion on small currents into remote corners. At the end of fluff season, houses need vacuuming and porches need sweeping.

Meanwhile, like the first fine snow of winter, cottonwood fluff is a soothing harbinger of a seasonal change; its lightness and the brevity of its presence make it seem magical.

Back in 2010, fluff season came earlier; this year what we've seen of summer so far has been late and cold. This makes me wonder whether the timing of fluff might reveal the weather of coming seasons. Was fluff one of the signs in the Old Farmer's Almanac our forbears set so much store by?

Maybe it should be. Fluff could be bringing us arcane messages that are going right over our heads.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Canada's northernmost settlement

 Picture of Grise Fjord Airport from wikipedia

At 76 degrees North latitude, Grise Fjord is Canada's northernmost settlement.

The community was established in 1953 to strengthen Canadian claims to the High Arctic. A brief slide show of the people and landscape of what was once North America's northernmost permanent settlement can be seen here.

Because of the permafrost, wooden homes are built on platforms. Fresh water is stored in tanks on top of each house, and delivered by truck. Sewage is handled first by individual septic tanks and then pumped out to a lagoon.

According to the community website, the people of Grise Fjord hunt for marine mammals, which play an important role in their diet. Food flown in from the south comes at double the price tag people pay in southern Canada.

The only store, the co-op, sells everything from groceries to cable television, includes a post office and rents out snowmobiles. For visitors to the town, the Grise Fjord Lodge has eight guest rooms.

A single school, called Ummimmak, or Muskox School, teaches Grades 1 to 12. Students learn English and their native Inuktitut. Community elders pass on traditional skills such as carving, sled-building and sewing.

Flying to YGZ Grise Fjord Airport involves several hops. Those who leave from Edmonton, the western gateway to the Far North, go first to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, then Resolute, where they may need to stay overnight, and finally on to Grise Fjord.

Those heading north from Ottawa or Montreal travel to Resolute and then Grise Fjord by way of Iqualuit in Nunavut.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Airports north of seventy

Photo: Floatplane at Sachs Harbour Airport, by Jim Bob Malone

"'Possible presence of large animals within airport perimeter,'" warns the Canada Flight Supplement, as quoted on the Polar Pilots website. Polar bears, perhaps, or caribou? Muskoxen, maybe.

YIO Pond Inlet Airport lies at 72 degrees North latitude, near the magnetic pole. It is located on Baffin Island in northern Nunavut. Baffin is the largest island in Canada's Arctic archapelago, and the fifth largest in the world. In area, it outranks Sumatra in Indonesia. It is more than double the size of Japan's largest island of Honshu.

Also located at 72 degrees North is YSY Sachs Harbour (David Nasogaluak Jr. Saaryuaq) Airport on Banks Island. Here, pilots are expected in some circumstances to provide their own pumps for fuel.

In 2010, Banks Island was the site of an interesting marine archeological find. A few months after the the publication of a book by Vancouver author Brian Payton about the voyage of the HMS Investigator, The Ice Passage (Doubleday 2009), Parks Canada archeologists launched a search for the wrecked ship. They found it in shallow waters close to the island.

The Royal Navy ship Investigator was one of several ships that sailed out in search of the Franklin expedition, which had vanished earlier while seeking the mythical Northwest Passage, a navigable sea trade route to the Orient through the Arctic.

YRB Resolute Airport (Qausuittuq) is located at Resolute Bay, 74 degrees North latitude, on the south side of Cornwallis Island, north of the Barrow Strait. Although Cornwallis is relatively small compared to other Arctic Islands, it still covers about a quarter of the area covered by either Cuba or Iceland, which are of similar size.

Considering the size of the northern islands as well as the vast tracts of mainland, it is clear that air travel is essential to Arctic life. Thus many Canadian airports are located in the Far North.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Aiports north of sixty

Photo: Whitehorse Airport by

Canada is an enormous territory bordered by three oceans. The Canadian Arctic includes some of the world's largest and most thinly populated islands. Obviously, air travel is essential for a country this size, and the nation has hundreds of airports. Many of these are "north of sixty," that is, the sixtieth parallel of latitude, also known as the Arctic Circle.

Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, lies at 60.7161 degrees North latitude. The capital of the Northwest Territories, Yellowknife, is at 62 degrees North.

Freddie Carmichael Airport in Aklavik, on the huge delta of the Mackenzie River, and Gjoa Haven Airport in Nunavut lie at 68 degrees North. Roald Amundsen stopped here with his ship the Gjoa on his journey of discovery of the Northwest Passage, Visitors to Gjoa Haven can stay at the Amundsen Hotel.

Photo right wikimedia commons: Yellowknife Airport, with its polar bear and inukshuk, reflects the geography and culture of the Far North. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Green glades of fancy

A glimpse down a path draws the eye and the mind. These green paths are old friends I've been visiting for nearly forty years.

They never fail to suggest mystery and narrative. Each has a slightly different character; all are alluring.

Why are they there? I've seen nothing similar to these in other parts of the city, or anywhere else. They lie between certain homes on the University Endowment Lands, overlooking the sea and the mountains.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje

Cover image from

The Cat's Table (McClelland & Stewart, 2011), portrays a journey taken by an 11-year-old from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) to England by ship in the early 1950s.

With a motley crew of others, Michael, Cassius and Ramadhin dine at the table farthest from where the Captain presides. Widely divergent characters, the boys spend the voyage together, determined to do "one forbidden thing" each day.

Cassius, the iconoclast who grows up to be a painter, relishes being "one of the insignificants at the Cat's table." The quiet Ramadhin, with his weak heart, smuggles a puppy on board the ship in Aden, and is devastated at the unforeseen disaster that ensues. Michael recognizes in his fellow passenger Mr. Fonseka the "serenity and certainty...only seen in those who have the armour of books close by."

Michael Ondaatje is a poet; like his other books, this novel is full of living imagery, from the "slow-moving aunts...joined at the hip by gossip and status" to the "already evaporating footsteps" of the Australian girl rollerskater who bathes fully dressed in the outdoor shower after her morning workouts.

The novel moves slowly, images piling on one another. Miss Lasqueti angrily flings unfinished novels into the sea and carries pigeons in the cushioned pockets of a specially designed jacket; the silent tailor turns out to be an undercover policeman. Mr. Daniels, the gardener, serves a dinner below decks where the guests are "gently misted" along with the indoor garden. The hot, humid engine room contains curare and other toxic plants, "enough to poison a dictator."

A prisoner who is exercised on deck late every night is said to have killed a judge. The Baron seeks out a thin, athletic boy, and uses this child to help him break into other people's cabins and steal things, then leaves the ship at first landfall with his loot.

"Like any experienced dog," the boys absorb the world around them. They watch different pilots bring the ship through the Suez canal and Gibraltar and up the Thames estuary. By the end of the voyage, the three friends have lost much of their innocence, and shared an experience that has uniquely changed each of them.