Monday, November 30, 2009

The carpenter's tale: A story cut far too short

Martin Auld, a carpenter, was punctual on the job, because he had a more important duty after work. Below: Martin as a six-year-old boy in Scotland.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 30, 2009


Martin Auld arrived on the job early, worked hard without a break, left promptly as though he had other business.

It had taken some years to find a footing. He worked in a bakery, as had his father, but it was not until his brother-in-law took him on as an apprentice carpenter that he found his calling.

He found satisfaction in the precision demanded of a craftsman. He developed a lean, wiry build, so strong he would think nothing of carrying on a conversation even as he held heavy wooden beams in one arm.

His longish hair grew wild like Lyle Lovett’s, sometimes falling over his eyes as he talked, as though providing a place to hide for someone shy by nature.

Mr. Auld had eclectic tastes in music and literature, the latter a remarkable achievement as he struggled with dyslexia. It was said the first book he ever read from cover to cover was “The Happy Hooker,” a memoir he managed to complete at age 14. As an adult, he compiled a substantial library about which he could speak with an autodidact’s insights.

He renovated heritage homes and built additions to post-war bungalows. After work, he crafted furniture, building beautiful coffee tables and kitchen cabinets, as well as a bed for his daughter. She was named Zola, an homage to a literary passion.

Father doted on daughter. They frequented Munro’s Books downtown, becoming to the clerks familiar customers. His expeditious workday was explained by his desire to be with her after school.

On a sunny summer Sunday morning, Mr. Auld rode his motorcycle home after having visited a friend. The night before he had spent with family celebrating his father’s 75th birthday. It had been a happy night and a calm morning.

He was northbound on Cook Street when, at the intersection of Caledonia, incidentally the name the Romans gave to his Scottish homeland, he was struck by a Jeep SUV running a red light. The driver fled, ignoring Mr. Auld, who lay motionless on the pavement.

His older sister, Susan, learned the terrible news as she prepared for another day’s work as an operating room nurse at Victoria General.

At his funeral service, at which those paying respects filled every seat in the chapel and crowded the aisles while standing, the family invited mourners to speak. Among them was a building inspector with a reputation for being a stickler who said he had never found fault with any of Mr. Auld’s work, a rare achievement in his experience.

In their grief, the family found solace in knowing he had touched so many people in his work and his private life.

Police caught the man who killed Mr. Auld two days after the collision.

The Auld family attended throughout the trial, dressing as though attending church.

Susan Auld remembers her father getting his first look at the defendant.

“He’s shackled and he looks downtrodden. He’s the picture of depression and chronic pain. My father leans over and says, ‘Oh, God. This poor man.’ Yet, at the same time he’s ripped a huge hole in our hearts.”

In court, the Aulds learned about a life tragic from the beginning. Gordon Richard Smith’s 38 years were filled with one offence after another, some committed on him, others by him. He had been in foster care since age six, had suffered abuse, spent most of his adult life in jail for drugs, robberies, weapons offences, and, horribly, one other dangerous driving incident.

He had been drug sick, seeking a heroin fix, when he heedlessly plowed into Mr. Auld’s motorcycle. He was also on parole.

He got four years for dangerous driving causing death, plus another year for leaving the scene. He got double credit for the time he served in custody awaiting the completion of the trial.

He will soon enough be eligible once again for parole.

The trial’s outcome was most unsatisfactory for the family, who felt despair at the futility of the exercise. But what purpose vengeance when it does not bring back to life your loved one?

“It’s not the court’s job to make him suffer as much as we’re suffering,” Susan Auld said.

“The court’s job is not to fill the void in our life. We all know that. Nothing is going to bring Martin back.”

She expresses sympathy for a man whose own life has been a nightmare, yet despairs because no jail, or rehabilitation program, or support service for those on parole, ever managed to halt the spiral that led to her brother’s death.

She also feels that if it had not been Martin, some other family would be grieving because of an out-of-control criminal life.

“I don’t think the general public gives a person like Gordon Smith a thought unless he crosses your path,” she said. “When he does so the outcome is pretty dramatic.”

At the funeral, little Zola, who has Down syndrome, sang “Close to You” by the Carpenters.

One of Zola’s teachers described a morning routine during which Martin dropped his daughter off at school. He encouraged the girl be responsible by entering unaccompanied. He then watched, unseen, a vigilant guardian at a distance.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A time capsule of protest

Joni Mitchell played guitar, piano and dulcimer at the concert that launched Greenpeace at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on Oct. 16, 1970. Photo by Alan Katowitz.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 25, 2009


It was a day one teenager, now grown, will never forget.

Joni Mitchell and James Taylor made out in the backseat of the family car.

Phil Ochs, the leather-jacketed protest singer, dined on vegetarian lasagna in her kitchen.

Even the cute boy in arts class, who had never before paid much attention, talked to Barbara Stowe about the evening’s big concert at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver.

For the 14-year-old Grade 10 student, the clocks at Kitsilano High never moved as slowly as they did on Friday, Oct. 16, 1970.

Outside the Coliseum, the air was filled with the scent of patchouli, sandalwood and marijuana.

By 8 p.m., she was sitting in a folding chair in the front row on the floor of the hockey arena.

Before the musicians came out, her father, a lawyer who had put aside his practice to become a fulltime environmental activist, stepped onto the stage.

He wore an expensive Brooks Brothers shirt, the white of the cotton tie-dyed with streaks of blue by his teenaged daughter. She remembers thinking he looked like he was wearing the sky.

Greenpeace is beautiful,” Irving Stowe told the crowd, “and you are beautiful because you are here tonight.”

His Rhode Island roots were evident when he spoke, as are became ahr and for became fohwa.

“You came here because you are not on a death trip. You believe in life, you believe in peace and you want them now!

“By coming here tonight you are making possible a trip for life and for peace. You are supporting the first Greenpeace project, sending a trip to Amchitka to try to step the testing of hydrogen bombs there — or anywhere.”

Before there was ever Live Aid or Band Aid or Farm Aid, even before George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh, there was the concert that launched Greenpeace.

A group of activists, originally called the Don’t Make A Wave Committee, had been selling 25-cent buttons and $3 T-shirts on street corners, but needed much more if they were to interrupt the underground nuclear tests scheduled for Alaska’s Aleutian islands.

One day, while making coffee in the kitchen of their West Point Grey home, the father told his daughter his latest brainstorm.

“I know how we’ll raise the money, Peachy,” he said, using a pet name. “We’ll have a rock concert.”

For someone whose tastes ran to jazz and classical, and who had only recently been introduced to rock, the idea seemed absurd.

He wrote letters to musicians. Joan Baez turned him down because of a previous commitment, but sent a cheque for $1,000.

The local band Chilliwack signed on, as did Mr. Ochs. Then, Joni Mitchell signed on, the performers agreeing to forego their usual fees to support a good cause. Ms. Mitchell had a request. She wanted to bring with her James Taylor, who had released his second album earlier in the year. Mr. Stowe had never heard of him, but agreed.

Tickets cost $3. They quickly sold out. Concertgoers were encouraged to hang on to the stub, as a draw was to be made for a door prize.

The radio on the morning of the concert brought the shocking news of the overnight declaration of the War Measures Act in response to two political kidnappings in Quebec. Martial law had been imposed. It was uncertain whether authorities would allow so many young people to gather in one place for a concert with political overtones.

As it turned out, the show was a success. Chilliwack rocked the house, Mr. Ochs performed a blistering set, Mr. Taylor provided a mellow vibe with such numbers as “Fire and Rain” and “Sweet Baby James.” A playful and relaxed Joni Mitchell played guitar, piano and dulcimer as she performed her hits and previewed some songs from her upcoming album, “Blue.”

The show raised $18,000 and, in time, the activists would sail to Alaskan waters to challenge nuclear testing.

In what at first appeared to be little more than a footnote to the day’s exciting events, the sound engineer captured almost the entire show on a high-quality Revox tape recorder. Mr. Stowe insisted the musicians be told. With their permission, he asked for a copy for personal use.

Mr. Stowe died of cancer in 1974, aged 59. Every once in a while, his surviving family — wife Dorothy, son Robert, daughter Barbara — listened to the old reels, which the son eventually transferred to cassette tape and, later still, to compact disk.

Over the years, many friends and acquaintances asked for a copy. The family refused with regret, remembering their father’s promise to the artists.

A few years ago, the brother showed Greenpeace his homemade CD, complete with cover art and background notes.

Earlier this month, after getting permissions, the organization released a double CD with a 40-page booklet and a you-are-there memoir by Ms. Stowe, as well as several stunning photographs.

The Amchitka concert CDs are an aural time capsule. To listen in is to eavesdrop on a special moment 39 years in the past when Phil and James and Joni were impassioned by a cause (and, in the latter pair’s case, by love). On headphones, it sounds as if you’re sitting just offstage. You can even hear audience cries for favourite songs.

Tune in, turn on, and drop what you’re doing. You’ve got to hear this.

Mr. Ochs is forthright and angry in reacting to the imposition of martial law.

“Thank you very much,” he says after one number. “It’s not everyday you get to play in a police state.”

In contrast, Mr. Taylor is utterly cool. After the audience cheers the opening notes to one familiar number, he offers a quick acknowledgment in a near-whisper. “Thank you, folks.”

Joni Mitchell opens with “Big Yellow Taxi,” segueing into the unlikely “Bony Moronie,” offering a explanation midway through — “One of my favourite songs from those YMCA dances I used to go to back in Saskatoon,” she says.

Her performance of “Woodstock” gets a tremendous ovation.

It was after midnight by the time she invited her lover to join her in a duet on Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

“What’s the next verse, James? You want to come sing it.” The crowd applauds encouragement. “Give him a microphone over here.”

The concert ended with “The Circle Game,” the musicians joined by their managers and Mr. Stowe, as Ms. Mitchell urges the audience to “Sing out real loud.”

The door prize turned out to be a guaranteed spot aboard a rickety boat about to sail into rough waters at a nuclear-bomb testing site. The lucky winner demurred.

Monday, November 23, 2009

An enduring friendship with the Bard of Barking

Billy Bragg offers a clenched fist salute after joining Rob Fleming for lunch in Victoria, B.C., in 1998. (Below) Bragg serenaded striking workers on a picket line in Ottawa last week. (Bottom photo by Kate Porter/CBC.)

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 23,2009


The moment comes in every young life when you hear a singer who captures your anger and your angst and your passion and your heartache and you no longer feel so alone.

As a high school sophomore, Rob Fleming, a precocious follower of world events, tried to make sense of what he saw on television and read in the newspaper.

His own emerging sense of right and wrong found much to question in the politics of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

He discovered a musician who made sense of the world, doing so with a driving beat and clever lyrics.

On his way to school on the bus, the student listened to the music of a folk-rock musician from England.

The album was titled, “Talking to the Taxman About Poetry.” It had a political ode about politicians becoming careerists (“Is there more to a seat in Parliament, than sitting on your arse?”) and it had a picket-line anthem in “There is Power in a Union.”

“Here’s this guy speaking truth to power in his music,” Mr. Fleming said. “He’s calling the policies of Reagan and Thatcher what they are. The politics of empire. The politics of widening the gap between rich and poor. It was a reactionary time.”

It also had love songs such as “Greetings to the New Brunette” with such unlikely lines as, “Shirley, sexual politics has left me all of a muddle. Shirley, we are joined in the ideological cuddle.”

And it had a terrific character study in “Levi Stubbs’ Tears.” “Great song!” Mr. Fleming says, still enthusiastic years after a first introduction to the singer’s appreciation for the great American soul singer.

In the summer of 1987, between gigs in his native England and in revolutionary Nicaragua, Billy Bragg played the outdoor Vancouver Folk Festival. Mr. Fleming, then aged 15, desperately wanted to see the performance. Lacking money, he hopped the fence.

“It seemed,” he says now, “like the punk rock thing to do.”

A youthful exuberance for an artist often wanes over time. A bored musician adopts a new style, or a fan finds another who better captures the emotions of the moment. Not so for Mr. Fleming. The free show marked the first of a dozen times he has caught on stage the Bard of Barking, named for the London borough that was his birthplace.

The music of Billy Bragg formed the soundtrack of Mr. Fleming’s life. He launched a chapter of his political career to a Bragg song, danced to Bragg during his first spin on the dance floor as a married man.

Mr. Fleming was a student politician at the University of Victoria when he began posting on the musician’s website guestbook, urging him to return to Vancouver Island. The missives worked. In 1998, Mr. Bragg played the Vertigo nightclub on campus, a triumph for the president of the student society.

Mr. Bragg returned for the Rootsfest Music Festival three years later, by which time Mr. Fleming was a Victoria city councillor. The pol took the troubadour on a pilgrimage to a bronze statue erected in the Legislative precinct. The Spirit of the Republic, by the sculptor Jack Harmon, honours the 1,600 Canadians who travelled to Spain in the 1930s to fight fascism as members of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion.

A friendship formed.

“There’s nothing rock star about him,” Mr. Fleming said. “He’s pretty down to earth in any circumstance.”

When the politician contested an NDP nomination, he entered the meeting room on voting day to the tune of Mr. Bragg’s “Upfield.” One savvy observer noted the lyric, “I’ve got a socialism of the heart.” Mr. Fleming said he chose the song because the opening line is “I’m going upfield, way up on the hillside,” coincidentally echoing the riding’s name of Victoria-Hillside. Mr. Fleming won the nomination, and subsequently took the seat. He was re-elected earlier this year in the renamed Victoria-Swan Lake.

Tonight, Mr. Bragg plays his first concert in Victoria in six years. He has had a busy week in Canada, speaking about the rewriting of copyright law, as well as reform to the House of Lords in Britain and to the Senate here in Canada.

While in Ottawa, he joined a picket line at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, serenading striking museum workers in the rain.

Mr. Fleming, who turned 38 on Remembrance Day, anticipates the singer will have been informed about the political situation in this province.

“I’m pretty sure he’ll have something to say about the paramedics when he’s here,” he said.

After the show, the old friends expect to get together, perhaps even over a pint, just a couple of blokes catching up on work and family and life.

Think of it as talking to the legislator about poetry.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coast Salish culture gets its day in the sun

Susan Point's wall sculpture "the First People" is one of the highlights of the new exhibition at the Royal B.C. Museum. (Below) A bone carving, dated from 450 to 1700, was recovered from a potlatch site on Orcas island. Photographs by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 19, 2009


The items are crafted from bone and antler, yew and cedar, dried grass and mountain goat hair.

They include bowls and baskets and blankets.

Some are tools. Some are household goods. Some are intended for ceremonial purposes.

All are artworks.

The world is coming to British Columbia for a two-week party in February. The athletic competitions will take place on territory home to the Coast Salish peoples, whose traditional lands take in all Olympic venues.

Across the Strait of Georgia, perhaps soon to be officially known as part of the Salish Sea, the Royal B.C. Museum is showcasing the rich culture of the Coast Salish in an exhibition timed to introduce Olympic visitors to the history of this land.

The exhibition is called S’abadeb, pronounced sa-BAH-deb, a Coast Salish word meaning “gifts” but implying so much more.

“The concept may not be translatable,” said Martha Black, the museum’s curator of ethnology. “It is tied into a larger concept of giving your time and your resources.”

The show was originally organized by the Seattle Art Museum in consultation with Coast Salish groups on both sides of the border, including a dozen bands on Vancouver Island.

To walk through the exhibition, which opens tomorrow (Friday), is to stroll through the millennia from a kitchen midden along the Fraser River to a contemporary art gallery.

Simon Charlie’s “Welcoming Figure,” a large wooden figure with open arms, has been moved to the entrance of the second floor Exhibition Gallery, beckoning visitors to enter what is billed as the first comprehensive exhibition of Coast Salish art and culture.

Inside, a map shows territorial lands stretching almost as far south as the Columbia River and north to take in all the southern British Columbia coast, as well as a swath of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.

Among the oldest artifacts on display is a miniature pestle, carved from antler to portray a great blue heron. Recovered at the Great Marpole Midden, it is estimated to be as old as 1100 BC.

Some other pieces managed to survive despite long exposure to the elements.

An atlatl carved from yew was discovered in the Skagit River in 1936. A tool aiding in providing leverage in the throwing of a spear, the piece includes two finger holes to provide a secure grip. The carved figure likely depicts a sea monster with plume-like crests atop a human head. It was preserved over the centuries in river mud.

In 1976, a fragment of a hat made from red cedar bark was found in Wapato Creek at Tacoma, Wash. The rot-resistant bark preserved part of the hat in a site saturated by water, which delayed decomposition. It was found at the remnants of a weir.

Several years later, the weaver Karen Reed was commissioned to create a complete basketry hat based on the fragment’s design. As it turned out, her grandmother had lived on the creek, part of the ancestral home of the Puyallup people. The two hats — one hinting at its origins, the other a magnificent artwork — are welcome companions.

More whimsical is an entire tea set weaved from cedar root, bear grass and cherry bark. The basketry includes a pot, cups, a spouted creamer, a lidded sugar bowl, and a tray with handles, made by hand by Josephine George around 1925.

A model canoe of wood and leather depicts two sturgeon fishermen, one paddling, the other wielding a three-pronged spear. They appear to be singing and, if so, it would likely have been a “power song” to aid in capturing one of the large fish found at the bottom of the Fraser.

Among the 165 artifacts are combs, paddles, fish clubs, spindle whorls, and a whalebone adze. A dish is carved with a bowl in which dried salmon can be dipped into seal oil.

The exhibition brings together pieces scattered around the globe, including the British Museum in London and the Perth Museum in Scotland. Some of the items date from George Vancouver’s expedition in 1792, returning to these lands more than two centuries after being removed.

Included among them are four horn bracelets collected by surgeon’s mate George Hewett. Only 20 are known to exist.

There are carved houseposts near the entrance, modern works of art in the last room of the exhibit. The most striking of these is a wall sculpture of red and yellow cedar depicting eight faces amid a flowing form similar to river grass. The piece, titled "The First People," is by Susan Point, an artist born in Alert Bay who now lives in Vancouver. Over the years, the Vancouver International Airport has commissioned several pieces from her, including the 16-foot carved red cedar spindle whorl titled, “Flight.,” which undoubtedly will be admired by visitors arriving for the Winter Olympics.

The museum’s S’abadeb show, which closes March 8, also includes robes and blankets. A showcase of Coast Salish knitting is, of course, the Cowichan sweater, a familiar and comforting object. Forget the Olympic knockoffs for sale by a major retailer. This is the real thing, a work of art that keeps you warm.

David Vickers, lawyer and jurist (1934-2009)

David Vickers spent 17 years as a justice of the B.C. Supreme Court before retiring earlier this year. (Below) A campaign button from his unsuccessful 1984 bid to lead the B.C. NDP.

By Tm Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 17, 2009


David Vickers, who has died, aged 75, has been called the best premier British Columbia never had, high praise for a reluctant politician.

Mr. Vickers died early Saturday morning at Victoria Hospice. He had been diagnosed earlier this year with cancer of the pancreas.

His reputation for possessing a sharp legal mind, his empathy for society’s less fortunate, and his own family’s story, in which education made it possible for the son of a working-class family to achieve success at law, hinted at the possibility of a sterling political career. It never happened.

A defeat at the polls in 1986, two years after his unsuccessful bid to become provincial NDP leader, led Mr. Vickers to return to the practice of law, where he was known as an effective advocate for the rights of the mentally disabled.

This passionate cause found expression after the birth of his third daughter, named Pamela. On the insistence of her parents, she became the first student with Down syndrome to be integrated in the province’s public school system. She received a certificate from Oak Bay High not long before succumbing to a congenital heart condition in 1990.

Mr. Vickers spent 17 years as a justice of the B.C. Supreme Court.

Two years ago this month, he issued a landmark, 473-page decision in which he ruled the Tsilhqot’in native band had established aboriginal title to a large portion of their traditional territory.

The ruling was hailed as a victory by lawyers for the band, though the judge’s ruling was non-binding. After a trial lasting 339 days, he urged all parties to negotiate.

“Trials in a courtroom have the inevitable downside of producing winners and losers,” the judge wrote. “My hope is that this judgment will shine new light on the path of reconciliation that lies ahead.”

The decision is under appeal.

Appointed to the bench in 1991 by Progressive Conservative Justice Minister Kim Campbell, the judge earned headlines two years later with an extraordinary publication ban. “A court’s decree somewhere in Canada on Tuesday prevents the public from hearing about a certain court case,” this newspaper reported on the front page. “The Globe and Mail is not permitted to reveal where the case is being heard, what the case is about or who and what is involved.”

When the gag order was overturned, it was revealed that a controversial stock promoter had sought to prevent the CBC from reporting on a drug conviction he had earned in the United States as a youth. The judge later acknowledged he had erred in granting so broad a ban.

In 1973, Mr. Vickers was named deputy attorney-general in NDP Premier Dave Barrett’s government. He served for four years.

In 1984, he contested the NDP leadership after Mr. Barrett stepped down following his third successive defeat at the polls. Opponents criticized Mr. Vickers as a johnny-come-lately to the party. A rival camp whispered that he had represented management in a bitter labour dispute 18 years earlier.

Bob Skelly, an MLA who was the first choice of few delegates, triumphed over Mr. Vickers on the fifth ballot of a memorably cantankerous convention. In the subsequent provincial campaign, Mr. Skelly proved to be a jittery campaigner and Social Credit, by then under the charismatic leadership of William Vander Zalm, cruised to victory. Mr. Vickers finished fourth in the dual-member riding of Saanich and the Islands.

The bruising nature of electoral politics left Mr. Vickers cold, as he felt such distractions only delayed efforts to forge social justice.

In 1990, he was stabbed as he helped protect a female client being attacked by a knife-wielding man in a Vancouver courtroom. Mr. Vickers needed 28 stitches to close his wound.

His earlier advocacy, coupled with his knowledge about life with mental illness, as well as with drug and alcohol addictions, made it difficult for the judge to jail such people.

“For me that was the most difficult part of the job, the sentencing, because of the lack of resources, the lack of attention paid to individual needs of the person you are sentencing,” he told the Globe’s Justine Hunter earlier this year.

“How does this government justify the construction of a new jail when those social programs are not being addressed?”

He retired from the bench at the start of the year, having spent almost a half-century in the law. He joined the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, an issue which he hoped to help tackle in his retirement. Those efforts ended with the unexpected and sudden deterioration of his health.

David Herbert Vickers was born on Oct. 14, 1934, at Montreal, where he grew up in the Rosemont neighbourhod. He was the son of the former Ivy Jessie Tyler, a secretary, and Herbert Vickers, a labourer and boilermaker at the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Angus Workshop. Both parents had come to Canada from England as children.

Mr. Vickers graduated from the High School for Boys, where he was class valedictorian.

By coincidence, his future wife, Patricia Goddard, graduated as valedictorian of the High School for Girls the same year. They had not yet started to date, though they had known each other since age 13.

Mr. Vickers completed an arts degree at Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University) before marrying Miss Goddard in 1956. The couple worked briefly at a summer camp in Ontario before embarking on a cross-country trek to Vancouver. He began studying at law school at the University of British Columbia, while she took a job as a probation officer.

Mr. Vickers graduated with a law degree in 1959, winning a $25 prize for proficiency in a course on mortgages. He was called to the bar the following year.

He articled with Ladner Downs, a prominent firm, later becoming a partner. He opened his own law practice in Victoria in 1979.

Mr. Vickers leaves Pat Vickers, his wife of 53 years; two daughters, Cheryl and Janice Vickers; a son, Clifford Vickers; and, four grandchildren and an adopted granddaughter. He was predeceased by a daughter, Pamela, who died in 1990, aged 20.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Young DJ's music rocked the boat, and Britain, in the Sixties

Gord Cruse takes a break behind the microphone in 1966 while wearing a skulls-and-crossbones T-shirt at Radio Caroline, the legendary pirate radio station. (Below) Cruse, now 67, wears a knit beanie made by a fan while holding 45-rpm records in his Victoria yard. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 16, 2009


Gord Cruse left the Canadian prairies and pre-med studies to enjoy London in the Swingin’ Sixties.

He financed his adventure by working as a labourer packing crates of garden furniture.

One day a workmate asked if he listened to Radio Caroline.

“What’s Radio Caroline?” he replied.

The only radio he had heard since arriving in England was the BBC, a staid broadcast in which music so puerile as pop was aired rarely, if at all. No Beatles and no Rolling Stones, no Merseybeat and no rock ‘n’ roll.

Even the name struck him as odd, as he was more familiar with the alphabet-soup call letters of North American stations.

So, Mr. Cruse tuned in to Radio Caroline, broadcasting from a ship off the coast of England, thus skirting British radio regulations.

He liked what he heard. At 24, he had already been behind the microphone, working at station CFQC in Saskatoon while studying at the University of Saskatchewan.

He asked for an audition.

He was midway through reading a practice newscast when the door to the studio slammed open.

He did not take this as a good sign.

“When they burst in on you,” he said, “they’ve usually heard enough and bring it to an end.”

Instead, he heard five words he’ll never forget.

“Can you start on Monday?”

Turns out the mid-Atlantic accent of Canadians was precisely the sound being sought for a station whose symbol was a skull and crossbones.

He joined a wild bunch of rogue disc jockeys whose adventures are the subject of the comedy Pirate Radio, a movie that opened on the weekend.

Mr. Cruse’s career as a broadcast buccaneer began as a newsreader for Radio Caroline South, spending two weeks of every three aboard a ship anchored in the Thames estuary, just outside of British territorial waters. He later moved to another rust bucket vessel in the Irish Sea.

A nervous debut before a microphone screwed into a desktop — a necessity to avoid movement in rolling seas — included the unhappy sound of water sloshing as he took a breath between news items.

He earned a starting salary of 25-pounds per week with free food and laundry, as well as a supply of beer and cigarettes.

“It was,” he said, “a pretty nice deal, a luxurious lifestyle.”

Life aboard ship was madcap. Keith Hampshire, a London-born but Canadian-raised jock, hosted Keefers’ Uprising in the morning and Keefers’ Commotion in the afternoon, ending each day with the invitation to “join me tomorrow for three solid hours of finger-snapping, toe-tapping, knee-knocking, thigh-slapping, knuckle-cracking, finger-popping, leg-pulling, wrist-twisting, tongue-tangling, foot-stomping rock ‘n’ roll music.”

(After returning to Canada, he scored a chart-topping hit in 1973 with the Cat Stevens’ song “The First Cut is the Deepest,” later earning a gold record for the ballpark favourite “OK Blue Jays.”)

Another swashbuckling pirate was Michael Pasternak, the son of a Hollywood producer who was known on-air as Emperor Rosko (aka Kaiser Rosko, El Presidente, the Happy Gringo, Senor Loco), the “mayor of mayhem,” a “lean, mean record machine,” a jive-talker with plenty of patter.

Even the newsreader earned a following among the British youth. Mr. Cruse received a knit beanie from a fan hailing the Big Crooser. He befriended The Bachelors and other music groups, took in the Rolling Stones from a front-row seat (“I could hardly hear the guys singing because of the girls screaming”), and received a wild reception when introduced to a crowd at The Phonograph in Manchester.

“Imagine this Canadian stubblejumper being introduced at a nightclub in England,” he said. “It just blew me away.”

The pirate ships were scuttled by the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in the summer of 1967.

A few months earlier, Mr. Cruse left to see the world, winding up at CFAX in Victoria in 1969. Seven years later, he abandoned radio to become a youth supervisor at the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.

Accustomed to earning his living by talking, he had to develop a different skill.

“Listen, listen, listen,” he said.

“I guess what’s common to both (jobs) is communication.”

He retired in 2002 after 26 years on a job in which he wound up admitting into custody the children of offenders who were locked up when he began. On a happier note, two of the youth with whom he worked named sons after him.

A few years ago, he wrote a touching book about his time with adolescent criminals.

He once had to take a 16-year-old offender to his mother’s funeral.

“Handcuffed to my wrist,” Mr. Cruse writes in “Juvie: Inside Canada’s Youth Jails,” “he stood quietly over the open casket with no tears, no expression and no words. We stood in heavy silence for about a minute, and then not able to voice a feeling, he tugged at the cuffs and we moved away.”

Mr. Cruse, now 67, took in his fifth showing of Pirate Radio on a weekend in which he was also remembering the second chapter of his working life.

A 14-year-old schoolgirl was beaten and drowned by bullying classmates on a chill November day 12 years ago. Mr. Cruse supervised the offenders and befriended the late girl’s parents.

He now sponsors an academic prize in criminology at Camosun College, providing financial assistance to a student intending to work with juvenile offenders. He has named it the Reena Virk Youth Justice Award.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

In escape from a miner's life, soldier found himself in prison camp

Denys Cook kept a secret diary during his five years as a German prisoner of war. Photographs by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 11, 2009


Denys Cook’s fighting war ended with him facing the business end of a machine-pistol held by a German solider.

After uneasy days hiding from the enemy around Boulogne, France, Mr. Cook, a sergeant in the Welsh Guards, knew he had no choice but to place his hands in the air.

The gun was pointed at his gut. His captor spoke to him in English.

“For you, Winston Churchill boy, the war is over,” he said.

Winston Churchill boy?

He later realized the German had seen the patch on his shoulder, misreading his regiment’s initials for those of the British prime minister.

The date was May 24, 1940. What would be the bloodiest conflict in human history had yet to complete its ninth month. Mr. Cook, aged 20, spent five long years as a prisoner of war.

Mr. Churchill had become prime minister of a coalition government only a fortnight earlier. Behind barbed wire, Mr. Cook belatedly learned about Dunkirk, Dieppe, Pearl Harbor, and Stalingrad.

By the time of the D-Day invasion in June, 1944, he was better able to keep up on war news through the ingenuity of his fellow prisoners. The subterfuge nearly cost him his life.

Mr. Cook is 89 now, a tall man with a long face framed by a beard and a sea curl of wispy white hair that crosses his brow like foam. His voice still carries the lilting cadences of the Welsh valley that was his birthplace.

His father and uncles returned from the mines each day as a dark as the night sky, bathing in a zinc tub before having the evening meal. Only after forming a union did the miners get showers at the mine head.

The boy knew he wanted nothing to do with coal.

“It was useless work. Underground, dirty work. The people were slaves to one man.”

He ran away at 13, working for several years as a kitchen boy for the family of an English teacher. At 17, he enlisted in the Welsh Guards, an athletic lad desperate for regular meals in those dark, Depression days.

He became a physical education and small arms instructor, becoming schooled in the use of rifles, mortars, bayonets, hand grenades and machineguns.

As Europe teetered towards war in 1938, he was ordered aboard a troopship. He thought he might be sent to defend Czechoslovakia from Germany’s appetite, though appeasement left him assigned to Gibraltar, where the garrison was being reinforced lest the Spanish dictator be tempted to snatch a British possession.

The time on The Rock would later seem a dream. A tall, lean athlete, Mr. Cook was assigned duties as chef lifeguard.

“My uniform was swimming trunks, a pair of plimsolls, and a pith helmet,” he said.

The revery did not last long. Ordered back to England, he was dispatched to France as the German army tore through Belgium and the Netherlands.

Not long after landing at Boulogne, amid the chaos of retreating Allied forces, Mr. Cook was captured, ending days of close scraps with snipers. In those frantic hours, he had to abandon a friend whom he had seen lying face down in a ditch, the back of his head a bloody mess.

He would see death on the battlefield, on the railroad cattle cars transporting prisoners, in the camps.

The sergeant’s initial reaction at arriving at prison camp was to flee. But the camp at Marienburg, within sight of the medieval Malbork Castle, was in Prussia, far away from any frontier offering refuge. Escape was impossible.

He began to keep a daily record, a diary he had begun shortly before capture when he recorded an incident in which one of his soldiers deliberately shot off his thumb to avoid facing combat. The blast left the sergeant deaf in his left ear.

Packages from home helped stave off starvation, as a diet of potato soup did not provide near enough sustenance for each day’s hard labour. A nonsmoker, Mr. Cook traded cigarettes for food — five buying an egg, 25 a pork chop.

The thousands of British prisoners brought with them all manner of skills, both ancient and illicit. “We had every profession,” he said, “except prostitution.” He taught himself shorthand, a skill that attracted the attention of the men who had built a radio inside a working record turntable

It became his duty to transcribe broadcasts about war news. To be caught with a working radio was a death sentence.

On one nerve-shattering day, a German guard spotted Mr. Cook wearing a headset while scribbling in the odd hieroglyphics of shorthand as a record spun on the turntable. Challenged, Mr. Cook took off the headset and offered the guard a listen. In that moment, a colleague flicked a switch on the machine, replacing the radio feed with that of the platter.

He had another, happier, shock while a prisoner. He spotted the friend he had last seen in the ditch with a grievous wound.

“What the hell,” Mr. Cook said, “I left you for dead.”

The men renewed their friendship, which would continue after the war.

As the Soviet armies approached, the prisoners were force marched to the west. Mr. Cook and a handful of compatriots fled in hopes of finding American or British troops. He was liberated in Bavaria, spending six weeks recuperating in a Canadian-run hospital. He weighed just 98 pounds (44.45 kilograms).

He became a policeman after the war before immigrating to Canada in 1957. He eventually became superintendent of Alberta law enforcement, retiring in 1973. He also became a prominent artist.

Today, the basement walls of his Esquimalt home are lined with his art. He still has the two prison diaries he wrote in a miniscule hand, the better to preserve scarce paper. Mr. Cook also has the manuscript of a memoir he wrote immediately after the war, a book yet to have found a publisher. For many years, his family knew little about his wartime experiences. Even the unpublished book was a secret. Now, a granddaughter is at work on a documentary.

He plans to take a few minutes this morning to reflect on those who did not make it home from the war. He has never attended a Remembrance Day service and does not plan to start doing so now.

He blames politicians for starting wars and hears enough from them without having to do so on Nov. 11.

“Yes, there has to be some remembrance,” he said. “But for me personally it’s a bad time, so I don’t go.”

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tales from the hood

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 9, 2009


The world has philatelists and numismatics and oenophiles, the attraction of their passion obvious even to those who do not share their obsession.

A postage stamp provides a panorama of world history on a thumb-sized canvas. Coins jiggle in your pocket and buy stuff. The hoarding of wine makes sense if one acknowledges the eventual tippling of each cherished bottle.

Dr. James Colwill is not one to indulge these common hobbies.

He is an aficionado of flying ladies, a maven of mascots, a boffin of bonnet decorations.

Step into the grand entrance of his Samuel Maclure-designed heritage home on a Saanich hill, descend the narrow steps into the basement, and a visitor is confronted by walls covered with automobile detritus.

A radiator from a 1913 Packard hangs from one wall. An old Ontario sign designating The King’s Highway No. 2 is posted in a corner. Old license plates are nailed to the walls.

These are mere appetizers for the heart of his collection.

He owns more than 700 hood ornaments, or, as the British prefer to call them, automotive mascots.

Think not of the Beastie Boys wearing a Volkswagen badge around their necks as pendants.

These relics of the junkyard are miniature artworks in nickel-plate.

Arranged in display cases are a speedy bestiary of rabbits, jaguars, greyhounds; a rookery of owls, parrots, pelicans; a wee folks gathering of pixies, brownies, sprites; an antipodean assortment of cockatoos, kangaroos, kookaburras; such good-luck symbols as horseshoes, wishbones, four-leaf clovers, and (pre-Nazi) swastikas; muscular paragons of grace and power such as a surfer, a football player, and Superman; and, such fantasist’s delights as nymphs and such horrors as chimeras;

Speaking of monsters, among the odder ornaments is a bust of Henry Ford, the genius of the production line who used his profits to bankroll anti-Semitic quacks.

He is a rare figure from history to take his place among such mythological figures as Atlas, Diana, Triton, Minerva, Hermes, and Vulcan.

The retired obstetrician takes a trip back in history in contemplating his collection.

“A rendezvous with time,” he said.

He was raised on a farm in St. Thomas, Ont., the Railroad City of southwest Ontario, where, incidentally, Jumbo the Elephant met his sad end when struck by a train. He attended class in a one-room schoolhouse where it was his duty to ensure the fire remained stoked throughout the day.

His parents were farmers who did not purchase their own automobile until 1953, settling on a Nash. On the hood was a reclining woman, a voluptuous figure designed by pinup artist George Petty.

In the 1960s, as he studied medicine in Toronto, the young student met the owner of a automotive plating company interested in mascots. He began a collection of his own.

As a doctor in Colorado, he discovered junkyards in which hood ornaments and radiator caps had not been stripped from abandoned vehicles.

“It was like opening Christmas presents,” he said. “You’d be wondering what you would find another 100 yards down the road.”

Remembering bargaining sessions with overalls-clad dealers, he got a wistful expression on his face.

“You could offer them $1, or $2 each.”

Those days are long gone, as a valuable ornament now goes for far more than the original price of the automobile to which it had been attached.

The Holy Grail among collectors — what to call them? Hoodies? Hoodwinked? Mascot maniacs? — is the trumpeting elephant found on the radiator cap of the Bugatti Type 41, popularly known as the Royale. Designed by Ettore Bugatti as a luxury car for European royalty, few orders were made during the Great Depression and only six were ever assembled. One survived the war after being bricked behind a wall to avoid seizure by the Nazis.

The rearing elephant is believed based on a sculpture by his brother, Rembrandt Bugatti, who committed suicide many years earlier. Fortune magazine calls it “the world’s most expensive car,” valued a decade ago at $10 million US.

Dr. Colwill will not be adding it to his collection anytime soon.

He has published three glossy books based on his collection, a series titled, “The Automotive Mascot: A Design in Motion.” He is now at work on a fourth, photographic volume.

The retired obstetrician’s expertise helps other collectors discern the cheap, knockoff reproductions from the magnificent, and sometimes bizarre, mascots found in his basement.

He has a kewpie doll, a Shriner in a red fez, and an Uncle Sam in a red, white and blue top hat.

He has such advertising characters as the Red Devil from Bosch and Bibendum from Michelin.

He has a coiled snake that once could be found on the car driven by movie heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, who starred in the 1925 silent film “Cobra.”

Sometimes, the ornaments were designed with whimsy in mind.

In one, a monkey hugs a cooking pot from which the steam from the radiator would be released.

Another includes a miniature roulette wheel, spun by the wind.

“Everyone kicked money into a pot and selected a number from one to 20,” Dr. Colwill said. “When the car stopped, they’d get out to read the marker and award the money.”

As distracting as a cellphone call, but infinitely more fun.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Philosopher kids

Tiffany Poirier uses finger puppets to make a philosophical point in her elementary classroom. Photograph by Candice Albach.

By Tom Hawthorn
The Torch
Autumn, 2009

As a little girl, Tiffany Poirier lay awake at night pondering the big questions. What is happiness? How did I get here? What happens when we die?

She sought answers from the grownups in her life, a fruitless exercise. Then, as now, children were not considered capable of handling profound truths. Instead, she heard fairy tales and folk wisdom. She was told to not bother her pretty head with such thoughts.

Today, at age 29, she still seeks answers to her early questions, having embarked on a lifelong quest that has taken her from University of Victoria lecture halls back to elementary school classrooms. She is a teacher who encourages her precocious charges to be as inquisitive as she had been at their age.

She may have more understanding today than she did as a child, but the supply of unanswered — and, sometimes, unanswerable — questions is never exhausted.

It is her belief, which she puts into practice every working day, that children are natural philosophers.

“Some people think philosophy is the domain of university professors in tweed blazers with long white beards in some book-bound library covered in cobwebs,” she said.

She prefers to introduce philosophy to adolescents with scuffed knees and a natural curiosity. Often, it is the teacher who gets lessoned.

“Kids have so much wisdom,” she said.

Poirier was forced to confront the big questions at an innocent age because of a shocking tragedy that befell her family. Even today, a quarter-century later, memory of what happened quickly reduces her to tears, an understandable reaction to so deep a loss.

Poirier brings passion to any conversation, especially one touching on teaching. On a recent visit to Victoria from her home in Surrey, she brought with her to a downtown coffee shop a thick binder of teaching notes, through which she eagerly searched for examples of the lessons she uses in class.

She has flashing eyes, a clever sense of humour, and a rapid-fire patter that no doubt enraptures even unruly classrooms. She would be played in the movies by Reese Witherspoon as Tracy Flick in “Election,” all the achievement without the Machiavellian plotting. Poirier has accomplished much since graduating from UVic (Arts, ’04), gaining an education degree and becoming an accomplished public speaker and conductor of teacher workshops.

She has contributed to “The Teacher Diaries,” a series published by the online magazine The Tyee.

Did we mention she has won awards as a teacher? As a vocalist? A songwriter? As an actor?

Earlier this year, O Books published her children’s primer, “Q is For Question: An ABC of Philosophy,” which she both wrote and illustrated.

“This is a book of questions,” she tells children. “There are no answers. You have the answers.”

Children should be introduced to philosophy at their level, she argues, not through instruction from old textbooks.

Even simple misbehaviour in the classroom raises philosophical questions. Take a pupil tapping a pencil. The irksome noise is disruptive, but Poirier is not distracted by the tap tap tap. She hears the student asking, “Do I matter? Do you hear me? Am I alone?” A push in the schoolyard, while obviously transgressive, also poses questions: What are society’s rules? What can I get away with?

A lot of philosophical lessons come from child’s play. While she was a teacher at General Brock Elementary on Main Street in Vancouver’s gritty Riley Park neighbourhood, some students complained about the condition of the playground, which they regarded as ugly and dirty.

She told them a former pupil, the entrepreneur Jimmy Pattison, was donating $50,000 to improve the facility. She asked the students to consider what would make an ideal playground.

Giant slides, someone offered. Bumper cars, another suggested.

Some children had objections based on their own experiences. What about kids in wheelchairs? How about a bus service to the new playground for poor children?

“Young people, their hearts are open,” she said. “They’re open to these truths.”

The children slipped easily from describing a dream list of features to negotiating which playthings should be included, and why they should be. Next, she had them construct an architect’s model in cardboard of their perfect playground.

Sometimes, the lessons are delivered in response to trauma. One of her nine-year-old students came to class one morning eager to talk about the aftermath of a gang shooting he had witnessed. The boy had no end of questions. Why did that happen? Will that happen to my brother? Will it happen to me?

“Forget the curriculum,” Poirier recalls thinking that morning. She also knew she had to address the incident. “You can’t protect kids from the world completely.”

So, she altered the day’s lesson by having the class talk about the event their classmate had witnessed. She asked, Why do you think someone would shoot another person? “He’s sad,” one child answered. “Nobody loves him.” The discussion went from there.

“They’re so fresh and honest. They didn’t go home and practice their didactic speech. It’s happening in the moment.”

Another time, she had a dialogue with the class in which they wrestled with the question, Where is your mind?

Some had a knee-jerk response: “It’s your brain and it’s in your head.”

One boy got frustrated because the other students said what he was thinking before he got a chance to speak. When it was at last his turn, his anguished response caught the teacher’s attention. “I think my mind is all around me,” he said. “Every time I’m about to say something, somebody takes my idea.”

Whoa. Now, that’s a statement worthy of philosophical contemplation.

If Poirier has a keen understanding of the thinking of children, perhaps it owes to the trauma she faced at age five. Her father, a firefighter, departed the family home to go to work fighting a blaze in a forest in the interior of British Columbia. He gave his daughter a hug and kiss, promising to bring her back a gift on his return.

On June 29, 1985, the Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter in which he was a passenger crashed and burned while trying to make an emergency landing on Highway 23, about 50 kilometres south of Revelstoke. Roy Friesen would not be coming home, a fallen firefighter.

“I was mad,” she says now, blinking tears, “because I felt he never came through with his promise.”

Before long, she began wrestling with such questions as, “Where does that love go?”

She did not get any satisfactory answers.

Later still, she suffered the stigma of not having a father to participate in Career Day at her own school. “I was ashamed,” she admits. “It was so shameful I didn’t have a nuclear family.”

Her own brilliant academic career, which included graduating as top arts student at Abbotsford Senior Secondary, led her to UVic, where she more fully indulged her querying nature. She interrupted her work towards a bachelor’s degree with several semesters at the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria.

Her time in this city was also one of newfound freedom and experimentation, an opportunity to push boundaries. Against her own best judgment, she took up skydiving.


“He never came down from the sky.”

For her, jumping from an airplane was “a way to take back that event from nature.”

She called it quits after 25 successful jumps.

These days, her working life is spent encouraging children to indulge such thoughts as, “ ‘I exist. I’m thinking about thinking.’ It’s like a play within a play. As soon as someone gives you the language, your thoughts make sense.”

Should she ever become a university philosophy professor, Poirier thinks she would use the same lessons of hands-on philosophy. She’d use popsicle sticks and she’d have a discussion group pass around a ball of yarn as they exchanged ideas, building a dialogue web. Just like she does in Grade 5.

“Philosophy classes should be more like playgrounds of the mind. I think we’d get more done.”

In the pain of her childhood loss, she wrestled with big questions, launching a lifetime of enquiry for herself and those around her. In a way, you might think of this relentless curiosity, this never ending quest for understanding, as a father’s gift to a little girl he never intended to leave.

Selections from Tiffany Poirier’s “Q is for Question: An ABC of Philsophy,” published earlier this year by O Books of Britain:

“What is existence?
Can you define it?
Is there a boundary?
What is outside it?

At the edge of space,
if you poked your fist,
could you scoop in
your hand
what doesn’t exist?

What is happiness?
What is worth?
Is pursuing happiness
our purpose on Earth?

What are your rights?
Are rights equal for all?
Which rights apply
to an animal?

Need and hunger never take a holiday

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
November/December, 2009

About this time of year, when the daytime air smells of fall and winter fog rolls in at night, children are distracted from the approaching darkness with the great promise of free candy.

The giddy fun of dress-up is an annual rite on Halloween. Some schools encourage children to attend class in costume, desks occupied by ghosts and witches and princesses and little wizards. The ringing of the end-of-the-day bell means they are mere hours from beginning the happy ritual of shaking down the neighbours for sweets.

Before they leave for the eve’s fun, they receive a chunk of cardboard pressed flat. Little hands fold and bend the cardboard into a little box with a coin slop in the top, to be worn on string around the neck, or carried in a free hand.

“Trick or treat for Unicef!” was a cry heard at the door, eager voices calling for candy for themselves and coppers for the world’s poorest children.

The campaign began in 1955, a genius idea in which greedy goblins learned the joy of helping others (without the suffering of sharing the extorted treats). Over a half-century, some $96 million was raised by Canadians for projects supervised by the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund.

The charity stopped handing out the boxes three years ago, the labour needed to roll pennies — and the costs of shipping such heavy packages — too prohibitive. Now, children take part in a classroom program called Schools for Africa, for which money is raised in school and on the streets for students in Malawi and Rwanda.

This is the season when Victoria’s charities do the bulk of their fundraising. We will be inundated with pitches and appeals, asked to reflect on our good fortune even as we contemplate the heartbreaking circumstances of others.

As if anyone walking downtown could ever forget the many in need who surround us. We would do well to heed the little voices in our lives, because they see even when we turn our heads.

Children are great ones for charity. If not natural philanthropists, they have the right instincts.

The girls in my neighbourhood, who jokingly call themselves The Famous Five, as though they were a rock band, or a band of girl detectives, once spent a summer week selling lemonade to passersby. They set a table with chairs for themselves and for customers, taped up handprinted signs, ransacked their parents’ homes for cups and pitchers and sugar and lemons.

They spent hours in the sun, proudly showing at the end of the day a tinkling jar of coins and a small wad of crumpled bills.

They money, they insisted, go to Royal Jubilee Hospital. They were rightly proud of themselves, but not nearly so proud as were their parents.

My daughter has a friend with a birthday near Christmas, her annual party one in which her friends contributed small gifts to be placed in packages for children at the Cridge Centre for the Family, cake and ice cream served after all helped to organize the gift baskets.

The desperate circumstances of others can be jarring. Those of us in middle-age can remember the wrestler Whipper Billy Watson promoting the annual March of Dimes campaign, perched on his shoulder, or being carried in his massive arm some poor child with leg encased in an Eiffel Tower of metal braces and leather straps. Who wouldn’t give up on buying a pack or two of hockey cards for that kid? (Beside, we feared Whipper Billy might lay a smacking on us if we didn’t.)

Not so long ago, the major charity in every city was the United Way and maybe a Christmas fund sponsored by the local daily newspaper. The business of charity has become more sophisticated with heart-wrenching direct-mail appeals and easy online donations. As well, hardly a summer weekend slips past without a runathon, bikeathon, or, in the Inner Harbour, paddlethon, all exertions for a worthy cause. We buy Girl Guide cookies at the door and at the office; sign up to sponsor laps and kilometres; donate clothes to Big Brothers Big Sisters, or to Canadian Diabetes, or to Goodwill, the goods to be left at the front door, clearly labelled, before 8 a.m.

Not to forget bottle drives.

Or Cops for Cancer.

Often, the charitable impulse is sparked by a personal connection. We lose a friend or family member to cancer, or to heart disease.

I’m not immune to those appeals, but the ones that get me in the gut are the ones that aim for the gut.

That’s why I’m a fan of Gordy Dodd and his cornball furniture commercials. He and his family play host to an annual Thanksgiving Dinner for the homeless, 600 hungry folks served butterballs by a happy goofball.

Down in Trounce Alley, the Tapa Bar has been celebrating its tenth anniversary all year long. For every pizza they’ve sold this year, they’ve sent $2 to the Our Place Society, which provides meals, showers and other assistance to the homeless.

Over at the Mustard Seed at Queens Avenue, the lineup for groceries at the food bank starts hours before the doors open in the morning. It is cold on the sidewalk at that dark hour.

Once, this sprawling building was used as a marine garage. Now, volunteers offer coffee and snacks, distribute clothes and food.

“In the midst of it all I stood — a little transfixed — by the lives touched by poverty, brokenness and pain,” Rev. Chris Riddell wrote in a recent newsletter.

“A child in a stroller, unaware of their circumstance, just making due with whatever mom gives her; an addict asleep at the table amid the surrounding hustle bustle and a dear elderly man gathering bread from the abundant supply for friends back home at the complex, too frail to venture out for themselves.”

For every dollar the charity receives this year, 70 cents will be donated in these few weeks at year’s end.

On my last visit to the Mustard Seed, I watched a waif in a thin pink dress, the edges ragged from wear, reach for a heavy box filled with milk cartons. She was gently shooed away, lest the box land on her noggin. With her big eyes and thinness, she looked to me like Cindy Lou Who, the little girl in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” who knows the spirit of the season is found not in glittering gifts but in sharing.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The day the hardcore punk music (almost) died

Chuck Biscuits beating the skins for the Circle Jerks.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 4, 2009


Joe Keithley, who operates a small record label, opened his email one day recently to find a flood of condolence notes.

Sad news. Sorry for your loss.

Mr. Keithley had no idea who had died. The notes offered no clue.

He is not unaccustomed to grief. He has lost friends to drugs and to disease, the excesses of the music scene not conducive to a healthy life.

As a young man, he formed a punk band and launched a label to release a record no one else would. D.O.A. and Sudden Death Records carry in their names a young person’s carefree mocking of mortality.

It did not take long on the computer to learn the terrible news.

Chuck Biscuits was dead.

Throat cancer had claimed him at age 44.

Mr. Keithley had known him since the boy was in elementary school in Burnaby, the younger brother of a neighbourhood friend. At age 15, Chuck Biscuits became D.O.A.’s original drummer. He left after three years, playing for such bands as Black Flag, Circle Jerks and Danzig, gaining a cult reputation for his frantic drumming. He played with a wild abandon reminiscent of the Muppets’ Animal thrashing the kit for Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

Chuck Biscuits’ reputation was such that his name appeared on Top 10 lists of all-time punk and hardcore drummers. When not included, the comment section would invariably include a posting along the lines of: “How can your list have any credibility without the legendary Chuck Biscuits ...?”

A decade ago, he quit the music scene, becoming a semi-recluse.

Mr. Keithley found it hard to believe he had not earlier heard of Chuck’s illness, let along his death.

Yet, the news was being reported on music websites and by such news outlets as the CBC, the Boston Herald, the London (Ont.) Free Press, the New Musical Express, National Public Radio, and by Entertainment Weekly.

Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia written by all-comers, noted the death.

Mr. Keithley knew he had to call Chuck’s brother, Bob Montgomery.

“Bob was all cheery,” he recalled later. His own stomach sank. Bob hadn’t heard.

“Uh, what’s happening with your brother?” Mr. Keithley asked.

Mr. Montgomery was on the job as a Vancouver bus driver. He had not heard the news. He wasn’t sure it was true, though he had not spoken with Chuck in some time. He promised to find out what had happened to his younger brother.

Bob Montgomery was the middle born of three brothers and the only one not to become a drummer. His older brother, Ken, was a high school classmate of Mr. Keithley’s in Burnaby. The two met when Joe headbutted Ken during a touch football game. They became fast friends.

Ken lived in his parent’s garage, which he outfitted with his drum kit. The boys jammed in there, a little brother sometimes sitting on the upper mattress of a bunk bed, keeping time on bongos.

In time, all would take punk names. Ken became Dimwit. His younger brother, Charles, also known as Chuck, which sounded like upchuck, became Chuck Biscuits. Joe took a common, scatalogically-inclined slang that was a vulgar synonym for bonehead. He answers to it to this day.

In 1994, Dimwit died of an accidental overdose, an occasional heroin user succumbing to the purity of a shipment of China White. His family was not alone in their grief, as dozens of heroin users were dying in Vancouver in those days. Bob discovered his body. Ken was 36.

On Friday, it again fell to Bob to find determine a brother’s fate.

“Poor Bob,” Mr. Keithley remembers thinking. “This is rotten. One brother gone already.”

Meanwhile, graphic artist Scott Beadle, who as a boy had published his own punk fanzine, titled Skitzoid, began posting details about Chuck Biscuits on his Facebook page. In short order, he posted a warning.

The only source of the report of the death was a blog entry by James Greene, Jr., a New York freelance writer and contributor to Crawdaddy!, the online music magazine.

He said after several months of online correspondence with Mr. Biscuits and his wife that he had received an email on Friday morning reading, “Chuck did not survive his battle with throat cancer. He passed away surrounded by his family on 10/24/09.”

Within hours, the report went viral.

An early debunking note was posted by the artist Bad Otis Link, who wrote on his Facebook page: “Chuck sent me an email last night at 11:55. DEAD MEN DON’T EMAIL!”

In short order, Bob Montgomery reported back. He had good news. His brother was alive and well. He did not have cancer.

The New York blogger posted a report from the family stating, “Chuck is alive.”

He alleged to have been the victim of an elaborate hoax.

“All I can tell you is I’ve been communicating with two people since May and I was always 99.999% sure were THE Chuck Biscuits and his wife from e-mail addresses bearing their names,” Mr. Greene wrote. “They never asked me to wire money to a Nigerian prince or adopt their child, so I took it all at face value.”

Four hours and 49 minutes after reporting the death, a Wikipedia contributor performed a digital resurrection.

Michael Marotta, author of the Boston Herald blog item, retracted the fake report by audaciously stating, “Is Chuck Biscuits really hoax-worthy?”

Carrie Brownstein, who writes the Monitor Mix blog for National Public Radio, reported the death, later wrote an apology including this egregious statement: “As for me, until Chuck Biscuits is sitting next to me as I type this, I still won’t know for sure.”

She’s happy to report a death with no evidence, but demands overwhelming proof of continued existence. Let not the facts stand in the way of a good story, a mantra for this age of insta-gossip.

“It’s great that he’s alive,” Mr. Keithley said. “But from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. he was dead and that was tough.

“It’s unbelievable a lie can spread so fast.”

No cancer. No death. Just a lot of egg on the face of a blogger and those who rush to publish without confirming facts.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A white supremacist with a green outlook

Jeff Hughes poses for a self-portrait in his Nanaimo apartment.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
November 2, 2009


The deceased is honoured on a Facebook page, as is the custom in this digital age.

“Rest in peace mate,” a mourner posts.

“Jeff,” writes another, “you are a true inspiration to all involved in the movement. May your work carry on through your words of wisdom!”

“Your memory will live on,” a third writes, “we’ll see you in Valhalla. 14/88.”

Valhalla? 14? 88?

The tributes and salutations are posted on a page launched by Jeff Hughes, a soft-spoken man with close-cropped hair who liked photography and volunteered for an environmental organization.

Mr. Hughes, 48, was shot to death by the RCMP outside his home in Nanaimo on the morning of Oct. 23. Police have released few details of the shooting, which is being investigated by the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit.

His Facebook page promotes the Northwest Imperative, which is a call to carve a “whites only” homeland from the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. It includes a so-called “Homecoming Guide” urging white nationalists to resettle in this area.

He posted videos in which he urges white nationalists to overcome their fears and meet one another in person instead of relying on computer connections.

“Are you afraid they’re going to kick in your door? They know where you live,” he says. “They know who you are. They know what you do. It doesn’t matter. You are not hiding from the enemy. You are hiding from yourself and your friends.”

He also expresses frustration that the call for a white homecoming was not being propagated on the Web.

“We’re not asking you to march down the street in crazy, idiotic uniforms,” he says. “We’re not asking you to go out there and risk life and limb. We’re just asking you to take two minutes out of your day and push a simple thing like a website.”

The page includes links to an anti-Jewish pamphlet he encourages readers to reprint and distribute. It has an address for a post-office box in Nanaimo for a group called Northwest Front Canada.

Mr. Hughes participated in at least two social networking sites devoted to white racists — New Saxon (“an online community for whites by whites,”) and Nazi Space. In the latter, his profile includes favourite movies (“Triumph of the Will,” Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda ode to Naziism, tops the list) and turn ons (“National Socialism”).

In the “About me” section, he writes, “I am also moody, dark, introspective, painfully shy sometimes, actively anti social at others. I am curious, will do just about anything for my friends, but rarely forgive betrayal.”

Though immersed in the neo-fascist and white separatist movements, Mr. Hughes managed to be a valued volunteer for the Georgia Strait Alliance, a respectable environmental group active in Nanaimo. Brennan Clarke of the Globe reported colleagues there thought well of the man and his work, though they had no idea about his other political involvement, which he seems to have kept hidden.

He poses with fellow environmentalists in a photograph published on the alliance’s website. When the charitable group held a photo contest, Mr. Hughes won the volunteer category with an image of a sailboat.

His death was announced by Harold Covington, a notorious figure in neo-Nazi circles. Mr. Covington led a local unit of the National Socialist Party at the time of the Greensboro Massacre, when neo-Nazis and Klansmen killed five members of a Maoist organization in a confrontation on the streets of Greensboro, N.C.

In 1981, following the attempted assassination of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Mr. Covington said the shooter, John Hinckley had been a member of his Nazi party, though he did not offer any documents proving the assertion.

Mr. Covington was later linked to Combat 18, a shadowy and violent extremist group active in Britain.

About 15 years ago, he moved to Washington State, leading a call to create a white homeland.

(He is not an admired figure within his own movement, where is dismissed by some as “Weird Harold” and by others as an informer. His younger brother said he was diagnosed as having paranoid personality disorder.)

Mr. Covington said he knew Mr Hughes for almost seven years, though the two never met in person.

“Make no mistake. Jeff Hughes was a real loss,” Mr. Covington told an Internet radio program last week. “He wasn’t just one of those useless net Nazis.

“Jeff stood up. He resisted. He passed out leaflets. He put up stickers. Posted all over the Internet.”

Mr. Covington has written three print-to-order books describing the creation of an Aryan Nazi republic in the American Pacific Northwest, a hate-filled fantasy disguised as novels. The author makes little secret of his intent, as he compares the potential of his works to that of “The Turner Diaries,” another dystopian work and one that possibly inspired Timothy McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City.

Mr. Covington’s books can be ordered online from Amazon and Chapters.

The figures 14 and 88? The former refers to a 14-word slogan coined by a white nationalist, the latter to the eighth letter of the alphabet, a double H standing for “Heil Hitler.”