Wednesday, November 5, 2014
Salt Sugar Fat How the Food Giants Hooked Us By Michael Moss Toronto, Ont Canada Mclelland and Stewart 2013 450pp $32.99 ISBN 978-0-77-57003 It’s bad enough what the oil and pharmaceutical companies have done to us. Not to mention the banks. But to find, reading this book, that Philip Morris and RJ Reynolds, the cigarette manufacturers, are now running a large part of the food business, it’s almost too much to believe. I guess it shouldn’t be. The same people who defended tobacco till the end are still selling their products in the same calculated, deceptive ways to maximize profits and the same Wall Street managers are telling them to do it. Their products are processed foods and they use every bit of sugar, salt and fat they need to find the public’s “bliss point”, hold it and keep it. The bliss point is combined with the convenience of instant food and snacks and is just too tempting to hurried parents. In a shocking exposure of the American and the worldwide food system, Michael Moss, a winner of the Pulitzer prize and a tenacious and serious writer, and even more important, a concerned father, exposes overwhelming evidence that most of the medical emergencies which America and the world have experienced in the past thirty years, (eg) the high blood pressure alarm, the obesity epidemic and the diabetes scare, are attributable to the nutrition of the population and its dependence upon processed food. There is a long list of types of cancer associated with processed food. ‘As food manufacturers knew very well and as I would find out by moving the reporting of this book from Madison to Washington, when it comes to nutrition, the role the government plays is less a matter of regulation than it is promotion of some of the industry practices deemed most threatening to the health of consumers.’ Michael Moss pp. 211 Salt, Sugar, Fat The government regulators who we think are taking care of us, aren’t. The processed food lobbyists financially outgun any of the pathetically funded regulatory agencies. Every time there is an attempt to legally cut back on the salt, sugar and fat in our diets, there is a serious pushback by the industries affected. The mayor of New York city was recently laughed at as a nanny for trying to regulate the sugar industry. Anyone who wants to limit or cut back seriously on the salt, sugar and fat in our diets is accused of being against capitalism. But this isn’t some wild eyed lefty conspiracy theorist spouting propaganda. It’s a well respected investigative reporter who can back up his claims with evidence. From many hours of interviews, court documents and documents obtained both with and without access to information requests, Michael Moss has carefully gone through the histories of the industries of salt, sugar and fat and told their stories. Many of the people in the industries were open about their participation. Several ex CEOs and presidents have recanted and very few use their own products. We’re talking about brands and products which are familiar to all of us, the most well known in the world. They do billions of dollars worth of business yearly. Brands and products like Kraft, General Foods, Nabisco, Tang, Kool-Aid, Coke, Pepsi, Twinkie, Jell-o, Dr Pepper, Campbell Soup, Snapple, 7-Up, Doritos, Maxwell House, Folger’s, Hamburger Helper, Pringles, Prego, Ragu, Pepperidge Farm, Oreo, Cadbury, Kellogg, Postum, Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes, Unilever, Nestle. There are many more. You get the idea. You’d have to be living under a rock for the past 30 years not to have used their products. Salt, Sugar, Fat cites the evidence and testimony of expert after expert who blame the health crisis and associated costs (billions of dollars) on the processed food industry. Lack of education and exercise are associated with poor nutrition but it is generally agreed that processed food is the big culprit. Big tobacco was eventually defeated in court when states got together and insisted that “You caused the medical crisis, you pay for it”. The book is divided into 14 chapters. 1 to 6 make up Part One: Sugar, 7 to 11, Part 2, Fat, and Chapters 12 to 14 make up Part 3, Salt. There is an epilogue, a section for acknowledgements, a note on sources, other notes chapter by chapter, a selected bibliography and an index. One of the best anecdotes was about the gentleman who invented Cheez Whiz and bought some as he and his wife enjoyed their retirement in Florida. He didn’t like the taste of it, in fact, called it “axle grease”. After a long and serious investigation the company had to admit that he was right, there was actually no cheese or cheese products in the Cheez Whiz. It almost seemed normal, after reading how the companies targeted diabetics and bombarded young children with irresistible advertising, to read how Nestle, a giant headquartered in Switzerland and visited by Moss, fattens up the population so that hundreds of thousands need stomach surgery each year and only Nestle can provide the special drink they need while recovering. When the big processed food manufacturers need to, they fall back on the media strategies they know best, the ones which were so successful selling cigarettes for so long. The famous “mechanical tenderizers” which are suspected in the recent Alberta outbreak of salmonella poisoning are mentioned in the part of the book dealing with Oscar Mayer processed meats. The cereal business, baked goods, the cattle and dairy industries, they’re all present. All are complicit, if not guilty outright, in one of the biggest scandals the world has ever seen. Thank you, Michael Moss If you don’t like getting conned, deceived, fooled or manipulated, read this book. Hackwriters.com – Reviews section
Monday, November 3, 2014
Steve Coll PRIVATE EMPIRE EXXONMOBIL AND AMERICAN POWER The Penguin Press New York 2012 685 pp. $36 US $38 Canada ISBN 978 1 59420 335 0 “-the corporation does more to shape our energy economy than our democratically elected government-” Steve Coll I didn’t want to read this book and try to understand its meaning because I thought it would be too depressing but like SELF SERVE: HOW PETROCANADA DRAINED CANADIANS DRY by Peter Foster and SEVERE CONDITIONS: BIG OIL AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF ALASKA by John Strohmeyer, it’s irresistIble to me. I’m interested in the oil business because I worked in the upstream (the exploration and production of raw oil) as a roughneck in Alberta and on the North Sea and in the downstream of the business (the manufacturing and selling of oil and gas on the wholesale and retail markets) as a yardman in the pipeline terminals of Esso (Exxon through Imperial Oil) and PetroCanada in Ottawa. Steve Coll wrote the Pulitzer prize winning GHOST WARS, an account of the CIA’s activities in pre2001 Afghanistan. He has written six others including one called, THE BIN LADENS. He is a serious writer with a talent for telling a story from facts and events stretching over many years. He has written about important historical events in present day America. When you read this book, you realize that he’s doing it again by documenting history as we live it. In 1904 Ida Tarbell published The History of the Standard Oil Company. It was one of the first pieces of investigative journalism and described the ruthlessness of John D Rockefeller’s monopoly. It eventually led to the trust busting laws of 1911 which broke up Standard Oil. One of the pieces of the Standard Oil breakup was Exxon. In PRIVATE EMPIRE Steve Coll has written a meticulously researched book of investigative journalism about it. Exxon had always been shrouded in secrecy but, bit by bit, through the use of over four hundred interviews, more than one thousand pages of previously classified US documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and unexamined court records, the curtain is pulled back by Coll. Exxon and Mobil were both originally parts of Standard Oil. They completed their merger in 2000. Canada’s taken for granted. That was the feeling I got when I read the book. A kind of impotent outrage at being snubbed and the old realization that we in Canada aren’t that important even though Canada is by far the single biggest supplier of imported oil to the US, 1.9 million barrels per day in 2008. It’s pretty clear that if the CEO of ExxonMobil can ignore, consult with or demand attention from the US government at any time, he isn’t too worried about what Canada’s government thinks. PRIVATE EMPIRE is a book of 624 pages, with 61 pages of acknowledgements, notes, a bibliography,a complete Index and a Table of Contents into which the twenty eight chapters are divided into Part One: The End of Easy Oil and Part Two: The Risk Cycle. There are maps of Exxon’s and Mobil’s upstream investments before the merger, of the countries of Indonesia, Equatorial Guineau, Chad, and Venezuela and of the Exxon spill in Jacksonville, Maryland, where a gas station leaked 25,000 gallons of gasoline into a community’s water supply. It also contains a Cast of Characters listed by country; dictators, despots and enemies of the American government among them. Canada and Alberta are dealt with in four pages. As Coll puts it, “Canada’s politics concerning the oil sands were complicated, but as a practical matter, there was virtually no chance that Alberta’s provincial politicians or the country’s national leaders in Ottawa would seriously limit Canada’s production in the years ahead.” At the time of the writing and publishing of this book, ExxonMobil was trading places with Walmart as the biggest company in the US and with PetroChina as the company which was most valuable in the stock market. It was the most profitable corporation headquartered in the US. The corporation’s K Street lobbyists in Washington DC spent more millions than everyone else except GE and Pactfic Gas and Electric shaping, influencing, and stalling regulatory legislation after 1998. ExxonMobil, whose income dwarfed that of most countries, used the USA’s military and diplomatic channels to ensure smooth operations and ignored the politicians when they they wanted to. Rex Tillerson, who replaced Lee Raymond as the Chairman and Chief Executive of ExxonMobil in 2005, told the State Department, ” I had to do what was best for my shareholders.” after a $3.1 billion deal was announced between Vladimir Putin and ExxonMobil to develop oil beneath the Kara Sea in Russia. The deal could grow to $500 billion. The State Department was usually told first. Steve Coll catalogues, in exhaustive detail , ExxonMobil’s refusal to take responsibility for the social and physical damage it caused in places like Aceh, Indonesia, the Niger Delta and Nigeria, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea. Places far away and unlikely to interest the American population. But, to be fair, as Coll is ,painstakingly, through this book, they were the only places on earth where the oil and gas supply was vast and available. Lee Raymond, the CEO of ExxonMobil until he retired on January 1, 2006 with a four hundred milllion dollar package, was a midwest product, an engineer for 30 years at Exxon, an old time oil man. He was Machiavellian in that he didn’t hesitate to manipulate governments, politicians and their military power, regulators and environmentalists to his advantage. He was stubborn and short sighted in that he never believed in the science which claimed that climate change was due to the burning of fossil fuels. He employed many ethical scientists whose non disclosure contracts were tied up with pensions and retirement bonuses. No one really questions the character of the scientists but Coll and others point out that the management of the science is dubious. Raymond’s tough style kicked in with the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 when the company’s reputation was in shreds and the regime of safety he instituted included how employees parked and required reporting of paper cuts. He personified the arrogance of ExxonMobil and was disliked by many but was an undeniable success in the business world. ExxonMobil, extracting oil from tar sands in Alberta at Syncrude since 1978 through its Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil,has Canadian contracts there reaching into 2035 and other interests in the tar sands. ExxonMobil would never use the American miiItary, the consular services or the Washington lobbyists to force Canada to be the oil spigot for the American consumer, would it? It’s a question that needs to be asked. As unlikely as it seems, history shows otherwise. The author is scrupulous in presenting both sides of the arguments, explaining ExxonMobil’s activities, good or bad, from their point of view, through their eyes. Coll says, “Oil from Alberta, barrel for barrel, contributed one of the highest gas emissions of any source in the world” but the message Canada was getting from the American government under Bush was “ Produce as much of this oil as you can-we’ll buy all of it” There was never a problem with the environment and global warming when Bush and Cheney were in power. Cheney and Lee Raymond were close personal friends, both, like Bush, from an oil background, who met frequently in Cheney’s office. When Obama took over, the oil industry was angry with his attitude and at the new California emission standards. They rallied some of the population with patriotic fervour, saying that if Canadian oil wasn’t sold to the US, it would be sold to the latest threat, China. ExxonMobil was so confident in Canada as a friend and risk free oil source that it thought the many efforts of oil company lobbyists when Obama returned to Washington from his traditional first visit to Ottawa were a waste of time and money. Their attitude was that if the US government cut itself off from Canadian oil, they would sell it elsewhere. The problem is that exploiting the tar sands is more like strip mining than drilling with even higher costs to the environment and local people. The time horizons of ExxonMobil’s investments far outlive the politicians who hold power for a few years and are gone. In some countries there might be war for years and changes of unstable governments or no governments at all. It is no wonder that ExxonMobil had more influence in Chad than the US government. Where the American government gave $3 million to the country, ExxonMobil invested $4.1 billion. ExxonMobil has been compared to the East India Company, and the Dutch East India Company who set out four centuries ago to colonize the New World. The irony is that four hundred years later, these gigantic multinational oil companies may be responsible for raising the very seas upon which the early explorers sailed, through global warming. The corporation is compared to a Frankenstein monster in the statesman.com where Bruce Watson states, “Nowhere has ExxonMobil bullied the world more than in the global warming debate” The Exxon Valdez disaster happened in 1989 and dumped 257,000 barrels of oil into Prince William Sound, more than had ever been spilled in American waters before. Lee Raymond instituted reform and Exxon produced an admirable safety record and record profits. One would think a huge company investing gigantic sums in oil and gas plays all around the world would be vulnerable to the resource nationalism, partisan movements and blackmail which is commonplace in many countries but through an uncompromising array of legal action, shifting responsibility for human rights violations to militaries or to the World Bank and outright influence peddling, ExxonMobil has managed to avoid any Exxon Valdez type disasters so far. In 2005 Dick Cheney personally called the UAE government to enable ExxonMobil to win a contract to develop a field which held ten percent of the world’s oil and the fifth largest gas reserve. Whether using the Indonesian military in Aceh (whose methods included torture, summary executions and burying insurgents’ bodies in mass graves with company equipment),the military torture chambers of Equatorial Guinea or the security forces in the craziness and piracy of the Niger Delta, ExxonMobil built its own foreign policy without the US government’s concern for human rights. It was there on the surface, they said all the right things and did their best to protect the corporation legally, but they knew about the human rights abuses and, for the most part, carried on anyway. ExxonMobil Chemical is also dealt with in PRIVATE EMPIRE. About a quarter of American oil imports are used to manufacture commercial chemicals annually. A chapter of this book outlines the fight ExxonMobil and their spokesman-congressman, Joe Barton from Texas, waged to avoid having DINP (phthalates- See Ottawa Sun Aug 27, 2012 page 8) banned from children’s toys. It is a softener which makes vinyl more pliable but is suspected of being carcinogenic. Consumer advocates got some DINP banned but not all thanks to ExxonMobil’s lawyers and politicians. The premise of it all, of course, is George Bush’s long awaited pronouncement that the US was “addicted” to oil. There has been no doubt about that for a long time and as unpalatable as it is to the oil industry to hear put that way, they can rest assured that they are safe in the short term and, judging from the performances of the governments of North America, equally unthreatened by long term solutions. To understand the power of ExxonMobil, another George Bush quote is helpful. When the Indian prime minister asked why he didn’t just tell ExxonMobil to buy into an oil play in India, Bush replied, “Nobody tells those guys what to do.” The debate about climate change is something which Tillerson mulled over and investigated through ExxonMobil’s specially hired astrophysicists for three years. ExxonMobil finally admitted that global warming, at least in part, was caused by human activity, probably the burning of fossil fuels, when, for the first time in the company’s hundred year history, Tillerson supported a carbon tax in 2009. When the Deepwater Horizon blowout happened to competitor, British Petroleum, in 2010, it was estimated that five million barrels of oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico. Rex Tillerson commented, with a typical ExxonMobil attitude, “We would not have drilled the well the way they did” The “energy independence” drum is being beaten as it is in every election and the “Drill, baby, drill” proponents are searching for a congressman or senator like Joe Barton. ExxonMobil has unprecedented power in governments world wide. Canadians who are happy that we’re in such a helpless position, can take comfort in knowing that ExxonMobil is in our oilpatch. They were ten, if not twenty years ahead of PetroCanada in the Ottawa pipeline terminals when I was there in 2000. It means that we have someone technologically brilliant and wildly successful businesswise, exporting our oil. On the other hand, it is depressing.
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
I was not surprised at the shuffling of feet beyond the high wooden fence. It was Halloween night and I was working my first shift as night watchman in the old lumber company where my grandfather had worked for thirty years. They say, at the end, the owner would send a car for old Tom to take him, in comfort, the two miles each way he had walked for so long. There were children and parents walking the streets outside the yard, sometimes explosions of firecrackers in the distance. It was an old lumber yard, a throwback to the glory days of Bytown when timber was king. I walked around the perimeter wooden fence, checked that the big doors to the yard and garage were locked, wandered into the little kitchen for a cup of tea. I knew that drinking too much caffeine on graveyard shifts could have disastrous consequences when the lack of sleep eventually caught up to you, but this was my first shift, Halloween night and tea didn’t seem as dangerous as coffee. I wasn’t one to be superstitious and all the leprechauns and little people and faeries of Irish folklore weren’t foremost in my thoughts except when I remembered my mother who was born in Galway and believed in it all. I had bad dreams about the freezecat but that’s another story. There were three mugs set out in the kitchen at the back of the office. I dropped a teabag into one, plugged in the kettle and checked that day’s Sun girl. The knocking at the office door sounded normal. Maybe some of the trick or treaters outside had seen the kitchen light. I walked through the dark office. As I reached for the doorknob I heard the words “No need for that” I couldn’t believe my eyes when a man walked right through the door and shook my outstretched hand. “Tom, Tom Wheeler, your grandfather, and you’ll know Murphy” To my astonishment another figure stepped through the closed door and shook the hand which my grandfather had just squeezed. I felt it. I know they both squeezed my hand. I recognized my grandfather by pictures I’d seen. He had a large head, a bald pate and a perpetual smile. My irreverent friends would have called him “wingnut” because of his large ears, but not to his face. Murphy’s theory was the reason I was here in the first place. His theory of gambling on sporting events hit a few rough spots when I tried it after his death. Or maybe I didn’t get the full gist of it. Whatever happened, I lost my shirt over those bets and was forced to take this job. The last time I’d seen Murphy he was sitting up in his casket with my coffee cup in his hands and a brawl going on all around him. They made their way through the office to the kitchen where my grandfather refilled the kettle and washed out an old teapot. He made tea while Murphy and I sat down at the table. I wasn’t sure what to do about it and the manners of these two ghosts, for that is what they must be, were impeccable. “I thought we came here to decide” said Murphy, filling his pipe. “Yes, we can decide tonight, all right. Tonight’ll be the night we’ll decide” Tom said as he set the pot down on the table to steep and pulled up a chair. He too filled his pipe. “You didn’t follow through on the system I told you about just before I died” Murphy said to me. “What do you mean?” I piped up. “A team usually loses at home the first game after a road trip. That’s part of it. There were a few more tricks of the trade which you failed to employ when you made those bets. You would have bet the opposite and cleaned up if you had” Murphy lined up the sugar and milk near his cup just behind the spoon. “Hm” I grunted. Tom poured tea into our cups and spoke to Murphy as he added his sugar. “I think three” Murphy took his time, measured his sugar carefully with his spoon, added milk and stirred the combination vigorously. “After a lot of thought, I have to conclude that the answer is two” A long silence broken only by the sounds of tea drinking and the unwrapping of a package of biscuits Tom had produced. Peak Freans. “Maybe, if they were doing a proper Irish jig. But even then, with the footwork, you’d have to hope they were once Irish in order not to step on each other’s toes.” “See, three is the superior number” Tom answered,” being half again what your number two is It could be easily done by three angels dancing a Highland fling on the head of a pin” My grandfather’s father was a stonemason from Putney but his wife was a Ross from the Highlands and he defended the northern clan at every opportunity. “We’re not talking about a needle here” Murphy proclaimed. “The thick end with the eye in it. Only Irish angels could dance on the head of a pin and there’d only be room for two of them” Tom disappeared for a moment behind a cloud of grey smoke from his pipe. Anger showed on his countenance when he reappeared. “Three Scottish angels could do it” Before I knew what was happening they had jumped up and were circling the table, Murphy with a large shillelagh, Tom with a battle axe. I sat still and watched. Murphy swung a vicious two hander which caught Tom in the neck. His head was clearly separated from his shoulders but just popped up and landed back in its spot. It was facing the wrong way, but Tom adjusted it and caught Murphy on the side at hip level thereby cutting him in two with the axe. Murphy separated in the middle but his upper body, after popping up, returned to the bottom half at the waist. I could hear laboured breathing as they sparred and clashed but no more than the sounds of two old men exerting themselves. Finally, they put aside their weapons, drank tea, smoked their pipes and resumed the debate. “Two is a balanced number, equal on both sides of its duality” Murphy declared out loud. “Well, we could add them together to equal five or put them side by side and come up with thirty two” offered agreeable Tom. One of his brothers had been an accountant. “Ihirty two would be a little crowded on the head of a pin” Murphy observed. Both disappeared behind clouds of grey smoke as they contemplated the problem with newly fired pipes. “The angels would have to step lively all right” Tom observed. “Thirty two Scottish angels could do a Highland Reel on the head of a pin” he declared. “Mind you, they’d need eight circles for the teams of four” “Hm” responded Murphy. I could see putting them side by side and coming up with twenty three” I was wondering if they would again arise to resume hostilities but all they did was wash and dry the cups together like an old married couple. I could hear them mumbling to each other as they stood at the sink with their backs to me. My disbelief was in a suspended state. Except that it wasn’t a trick in my head. They sat down at the table again and looked across the office to the front door. The knock on the front door came after a long minute of waiting. I made to rise but Tom put up his hand to stop me and Murphy said “Shh” The door never opened but four little men carried a log fire with a bubbling pot slung above it through the office to where we were sitting in the kitchen. Behind them a mad cackle blended with the whooshing sound of a wild wind and a dark figure flew through the wall, did two circuits of the office and landed deftly behind the pot. My mouth was hanging open when I looked at my grandfather and Murphy. Both nodded and smiled at the woman in front of us. “Hello, Zelda” they said. “Boys” the woman spoke while her appearance changed like fluid before my eyes. First she was an old hag, then a beautiful maiden, then an ancient crone with a wart on her nose and finally she settled on a plump milkmaid who peered curiously into the pot. “This is Steve, Tom’s grandson and an old friend of mine” Murphy spoke up. “He’s on the other side, is he?” she stirred the bubbling broth with great concentration. “Yes, he’s still there” Murphy nodded agreeably “But not for much longer” This conversation troubled me. “And how’s tricks and treats tonight then, Zelda?” Tom inquired. Zelda turned into a smartly dressed businesswoman while she surveyed the pot and the four little men. Were they elves or goblins or gnomes? I didn’t know and no one was telling. “It used to be better in the old days” she said “You can’t scare anybody any more. Then there’s all the white witches. Dogooders I call them. I mean you can be spooky without being evil” She joined Murphy and Tom in puffing on a pipe. With all four of the little men smoking their pipes as well, we disappeared for a moment until the cloud moved on. There was no smoke from the fire under the pot though, I will say that. As if on a prearranged signal, the little men picked up the fire and pot, waited till Zelda stepped out of the way, carried it through the office and the closed front door. Zelda watched them go, an ever changing expression on her ever changing face. “Goodbye, boys. I sensed you were in the neighbourhood and thought I’d drop by to say hello. See you round” She did a high speed circuit of the darkened office, one second mounting her broom, the next a black blur, the next gone through the wall. After this display my grandfather produced a pint of single malt Highland whiskey and Murphy found a pint of Black Bush in his pocket. The tea mugs were used to share the shots. “Tell you what” said Murphy “We’ll meet next Halloween night here and decide for good” “Agreed” said Tom “Next Halloween night. That long enough for you?” “Oh yes. By that time there won’t be any doubt. I’ll know by then” “Same here” said Tom. They stood and proffered their hands. Each squeezed my outstretched one. As I followed them across the office, Tom said “Halloween night is over here now. But it’s just starting west of here” They waved goodbye and walked through the door. I opened it and watched them walk to the outer fence. They turned to me. “I’ll say hello to your Dad” Tom spoke in a loud voice. “And don’t bet on anything more than five to one” Murphy shouted They turned west and walked through the fence. Up in the sky, silhouetted against the full moon, Zelda flew by on her broomstick. I walked back to the kitchen to turn out the lights. I felt that glorious buzz which just the right amount of good whiskey produces. It was time to do my rounds and make sure nothing strange was happening in the yard that Halloween night.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
I clean the cream from my whiskers with my paw. I sit watching the delicious little birds hop from seed to seed on the dying thistles in the garden outside the window. This window seat is made for these lazy autumn afternoons. Red’ll be home soon. I love to watch his change of expression when he approaches the house to greet his latest wife. She’s Lola this year. It was Linda back in those days, Bennie’s sister. It’s getting harder to remember that I used to live with Bennie. The boys came up with the idea, in a poker game, at Bennie’s. There was Mutt, Jeff, Bennie and Slocum. I watched from the back of the couch, cleaning my paws with my tongue. There were clouds of smoke and interesting smells emanating from the table that night. The boys were flying high. Bennie figured his ship had finally come in. The next morning, as we drove to work, Bennie talked about the score. He talked to me, but he was really talking to himself. He was a good provider though, so I went along with it. Bennie was my owner, a cat worshipper, who also owned Brutus, a watchdog. Bennie took me to work with him most days. I was an excuse for Bennie to talk to himself, a warm body to have around. Bennie was the only employee left in Red Smith’s auto parts warehouse. Red didn’t make much wholesaling used auto parts, but he had a famous safe which made him a tidy profit. He held payrolls for a lot of companies which didn’t have the facilities to handle large amounts of cash. They couldn’t fit into bank schedules. The safe also held such items as receipts, estates and some money from questionable sources which Red labelled, ‘Other’. On the way to work the next morning, Bennnie dreamed along with the sports show on the radio. “With my cut, I could buy an island, like Brando. Down in Tahiti. So what if he’s fat? Women still love him. I’d have a party for the boys, but not for a couple of years. This is Slocum’s chance too. He can escape from his old lady, finally. The guy’s not well. She’s a bad influence. Don’t you think he’s shrunk and turned grey since he’s been with her?” I sat in the back seat watching some dogs on the sidewalk. Gross. Brutus ran out when Bennie opened the front door of the warehouse. There are dogs and there are dirty dogs. Brutus was dirty and aggressive with everyone except Bennie and me. Bennie had trained him, I had shown him my claws when we first met. He almost lost an eye that time, always respected me since. I wouldn’t turn my back on him, though. Brutus is big. He’s a big, dirty watchdog who would tear anything apart just for fun. Unless someone killed Brutus or otherwise incapacitated him, they’d never be able to steal from this warehouse. Unless they had an in and knew how the safe worked, that is. Bennie was counting on this as part of his plan. He could control Brutus and retirement was approaching. If he ripped the place off, he could sit tight for a few years and let things cool down. If everyone kept their mouths shut and they paid a lawyer Mutt knew, they would all end up rich. Even Red had some kind of insurance for a robbery, Bennie figured, but it wasn’t an urgent consideration. Red could afford it, no doubt. There would be questions. There would be all kinds of cops. They would insist on a lie detector test, but he didn’t have to take it, they couldn’t use it in court. Brando never backed down from a role. This was one for which Bennie had been preparing all of his life. That was the way Bennie saw it, anyway. I always thought he was a little crazy, but who could have known? The safe only opened once a day. If robbers did get past Brutus and the other alarms, unless they came at exactly the right time, they would have to blow the door off of it. It would take a big explosion to blow the door, neighbouring alarms would go off all over the place. There wasn’t much paper around, but there might be a fire. The other thing, which only Red knew about the safe, but no one else knew, was that it expelled all of the oxygen, slowly, after the door closed. Red got it from an art museum when the government closed it down. One of the perks of having a foolproof safe was that big companies were advised, by word of mouth, to use Red’s, in emergencies. Red made a pretty penny helping out big companies. When the boys thought up the plan at the poker game, it was after Bennie had told them all about the “special job” Red was doing that weekend. A big company was moving millions of dollars from city to city. They were leaving it in Red’s safe overnight on the weekend. Bennie and the boys planned to rip it off. I stretched and tasted the fresh cat food Bennie had left in my dish by the office door. I settled in the comfortable window, watched Bennie strike poses in front of the mirror. Every time I cleaned the outside of my ears, I remembered the ticks. Getting rid of them was a painful process. Bennie thought he looked like Brando when he practised a sneer. I thought he looked like an overweight Elvis impersonator. There was an inventory to keep, some paperwork to do, but Bennie mostly listened to a redneck on the radio and talked to me during his work day. When we were at the warehouse, Bennie kept Brutus in his run outside in the back. Red dropped in on Friday afternoon for a few minutes. He ruffled my fur, scratched my ears. Red was just getting to like me in those days. He went over the delivery of the money on Saturday morning, told Bennie that he had Sunday off, that he, Red, would be there to make sure of the pick up on Sunday morning. Red sat in Bennie’s chair, feet up, smoking a cigar, called Linda. He put Bennie on with his sister, enjoyed their fraternal banter. Red glowed with love for Linda. His face changed when he talked to her on the phone. When he spoke about her with Bennie, the latter thought he was kidding. Bennie looked at Red, quizzically, behind his back, after these conversations about his older sister. The boys planned to pull into the warehouse as soon as the delivery was made on Saturday morning. They would load the money and take it away. They would leave Bennie in the safe to be released by Red the next day. The story would be that the robbers showed up right after the security company delivered the cash, pushed Bennie into the safe, left with the loot and the security film. The key to getting away with it was for everyone to behave normally. These guys thought they could pull it off. It sounded good, that night, when the boys met for poker at our place. Mutt had all the papers and powers of attorney for them to sign. It would give their lawyer, who wasn’t above a bit of graft himself, the right to move their money around. No one could quit their jobs or do anything out of the ordinary for at least two years. They were all thinking about retirement. The boys were closer to old than young. The delivery Saturday morning went smoothly, the security company guards moved the cash into the safe. They had just pulled out of the parking lot when Mutt, Jeff and Slocum pulled up, at the front door, in Slocum’s black van. Bennie had already taken the film out of all the security cameras when they walked into the office. They wore gloves, but no masks or disguises. Bennie showed them the millions of dollars they were stealing by opening a package. They got lost in a delirious minute of congratulations while they admired the bills. After a short debate, they figured that I should keep Bennie company in the safe. There was nothing soft and warm inside the safe. I never did like it. They threw me in with Bennie after they put my dish and some water inside the door. I circled the safe quickly, ran out, just as they slammed the door shut. They left him some chocolate bars and water, but they couldn’t do anything about the light. There was no light, but Bennie planned to sleep and rehearse his shock and anger until Red arrived. They didn’t even notice me until it was too late. No one had time to worry about me, so they left. The three of them giggled as they got into Slocum’s van. In a few years, they would be on easy street. Margaritas all around at Bennie’s place in Tahiti, one island over from Brando’s. All they had to do now was to drop off the money at the lawyer’s. At the time, I didn’t know, nobody did, except Red, about the slow leak of oxygen from the safe. Bennie must have realized that something was wrong because he made a lot of noise in the safe around the same time that Red arrived, the next morning. Red’s Cadillac pulled up beside Bennie’s Celebrity in the empty parking lot. I watched from the front window as Red got out of his car and walked toward the building. He looked back once at Bennie’s car. He was about half way between his parking space and the warehouse when his cell phone went off. He dug it out of his jacket pocket and answered it. I could tell that he was talking to a woman he loved by the change of expression on his face. It lit up. He stopped, looked at the sky as he talked. He had a big smile on his face when he turned back to the car. He listened to the phone, smiled at his shoes. Red got back into his Caddy, talking on the phone, his eyes on Bennie’s Celebrity. He was talking to Lola that day. He thought Bennie had his days off mixed up, so that he was taking care of the pick up. He was partially right, Bennie was there, but he was in the safe. The noises from the safe got fewer and further between, quieter, then stopped all together. Brutus started howling and whining from the back of the warehouse. Brando’s death scene in The Godfather always was one of Bennie’s favourites, but I think he would rather have played it in a tomato patch. When the security guys from the pick up company arrived, there was no one around. They called Red and told him that they could see the cat in the office window and that Bennie’s car was there, but no Bennie. By this time I was hungry, the litter box was filling up. I knew, from Brutus’s mournful howl, that Bennie had somehow died in the safe. Red drove over from Lola’s the next morning. He took a long time calling long distance, pushing digital codes to open the safe before its special time. Red’s reputation was on the line. The reputation of his service to the big companies. The security company had to have the money. Red breathed through his nose a lot, walked around the office with a serious expression followed by the security guards talking into their cell phones. If they had arrived earlier, if Red hadn’t taken so long to open the safe, they could have seen Bennie gasping for his last breath. The police were called as soon as Red opened the door and found Bennie dead in the safe, the money gone. Red seemed surprised and a little hurt by the discovery of Bennie’s body. When he saw the cat dishes of water and food inside the safe door he adopted me on the spot. He took me home to his very comfortable estate. It was as if he was protecting me. He switched from Linda to Lola just after Bennie’s funeral. Linda accused him of holding out on her, but Red paid her off. It wasn’t the payment she wanted but she had to settle for it. The police questioned all of Bennie’s friends. Nobody talked and no one was caught for the theft. Lola’s a real cat lover so I’m pampered and lazy here. There are no poker games with smoke and interesting smells, but the food is great. Yesterday she got some cat treats and served them to me on a pillow. It gets harder and harder to remember life at Bennie’s. Red suffered his loss manfully, in public. Bennie’s death was so shocking that Red’s compensation from the insurance company went unnoticed. Red doesn’t know Mutt or Jeff or Slocum. They don’t move in the same circles. They were all there at Bennie’s funeral which was also attended by a large number of undercover cops. I watched from the passenger seat of Red’s Caddy. When it was over they filed past the Cadillac on their way to the cars. Red argued with Linda over Bennie’s grave. Slocum looked me right in the eye and winked as he passed the windshield. He knew that I had seen it all and that Red was a good provider. Tontopress.com
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
It was the last time I would go to Finn, I swore to myself as I searched for him in the Elmdale Tavern. He was around one of the regular spots. I needed to see him fast. At the Carleton Tavern I found Finn with a quart and money coming out of every pocket. I sat down with him, ordered a pint. It was still early in the day. I hit Finn up for fifty bucks to pay Murphy. Finn charged a fee for even handing you the loan. It cost sixty to borrow fifty for a week, but it would be worth it. Finn copied phone numbers and odds as he readied himself for a busy day ahead. Sunday, of course, was his big day because of the NFL betting. This was Saturday when college football and pro baseball took most gamblers’ attention. I finished my pint, said goodbye to Finn, caught Murphy at the Prescott Tavern, gave him a lift to Mary’s. Murphy and Mary had been engaged for twenty years. He still visited her little flower shop every morning. We stopped so he could pick a bouquet of flowers for her in a city park. Murphy didn’t believe in paying for flowers. When they were in season, he helped himself. It was a bone of contention between them. Murphy believed that flowers were given to man by the good Lord, shouldn’t be bought and sold. Mary believed that people gladly paid for the little ray of sunshine they purchased with a nice bouquet of flowers. Murphy had a friend named Calhoun in Montreal who could, for a price, buy a block of tickets in a provincial lottery which would produce winners. All I had to do was give fifty dollars to Murphy. I didn’t follow the whole scam back to the actual score, but I questioned Murphy enough to know that it felt like a winner. He assured me that fifty dollars would produce five thousand for me. Added to some others and passed through the right hands, it would yield twice as much, for him. This guy, Calhoun, had an in, was sharing the wealth. Murphy did it for me out of the kindness of his heart and good business sense. He didn’t have to include me, but he saw me as a good luck charm. I dropped Murphy off, went home to a weekend of sports on t.v. and too much beer. It didn’t cheer me up, to hear, on Monday morning, that Murphy had died on the weekend from a heart attack. I drove to Mary’s which was above her flower shop. It isn’t decent and polite to speak ill of the deceased, but getting lottery tickets was another matter. He always wore the same suit, his best, for giving and taking payments, more taking than giving, it always seemed with Murphy as he did his weekend rounds, careful not to exceed his booze limit. The lottery tickets had to be in his suit. Mary was in her shop with a short, dark, Scottish lawyer named Jack Scullion. She introduced us without mentioning if the man even knew Murphy. I listened with polite sadness, shook my head regretfully. Mary described Murphy’s last moments. It seemed that he died in her arms. Just after they had named a date. They had been engaged now for twenty years, so they were celebrating the twentieth year by marriage. She was as good as his wife anyway, Mary said. I agreed and inquired about Murphy’s “effects” as diplomatically as possible. Perhaps it was a little too vaguely phrased. Mary didn’t respond. Jack Scullion walked around the shop like he was looking for something suspicious. He kept an ear cocked in our direction though. He was trying to figure out who I was, where I fit in. Margaret, Murphy’s sister, appeared with her husband, Ralph, a used car lot owner. It was safe to say that the vultures were circling. I managed to find out that Murphy would be dressed in his best suit tomorrow at Ralph’s showroom. They were having the wake there. Ralph told me, in confidence, that it was his idea. It seemed a bit greedy for Ralph to take advantage of the crowd of potential customers which would gather to send Murphy off, but I wasn’t one to judge. There didn’t seem to be much of a chance of getting at Murphy’s suit pockets until the next day so I drove home and waited. I joined the line of people entering Ralph’s showroom. The place had a western theme, the staff were dressed as cowboys and cowgirls. They wore black armbands while Ralph himself was resplendent in a black western suit with tie and boots to match. He had probably considered wearing his black, ten gallon Stetson, but decided against it in case of misinterpretation by the mourners. There was a good mixture at Murphy’s wake. A crowd of children were the offspring of Murphy’s family. The older ones were Murphy’s cousins, uncles and aunts. When Murphy had mentioned his family at poker games or at the end of late night pub crawls, he gave the impression that he was the black sheep. His own opinion was that the family disliked him because they were jealous of his money and freedom. The people grew noisier as the booze flowed freely. Their presence was welcome. I needed as much attention diverted as possible while I sought the tickets. Most of the sniffling and crying came from Mary and Margaret. As I shuffled along toward them in the line, I could hear Margaret declaring that Murphy looked like himself. Mary’s voice rose over Margaret’s, in grief stricken tones, to tell someone that her brother had called to extend his condolences. He added that it was nice to think about old Murphy finally laying quiet with his big yap shut. People in the line who heard it at first looked puzzled, then made clucking noises. They agreed that it was a down to earth, honest assessment of the deceased, rest his soul. I eyed the coffin, snuck a peek at Murphy within. He did look like himself, I will say that. The dark, pinstriped suit, Murphy’s best, with the vest done up, decorated his body. His face was pinker than normal, but I only saw him in bars or restaurants so maybe this was what he really looked like. He had his hands folded peacefully over his pot belly and, all in all, looked like he had just exhaled and forgotten to inhale. There was no doubt about it, the life had gone out of Murphy. I could smell the gin on Margaret when she hugged me and the rye on Mary’s breath as she looked at me with red rimmed eyes and running mascara I managed to nod sadly and escape her while giving Murphy another quick, visual once over. Jack Scullion hovered in the background, watching everyone, especially me. There was plenty of drink and some sandwiches which the ladies had made. I helped myself to the food, found the coffee. It would take a clear head, whatever I did. Ralph was giving a sales pitch to a couple beside a beat up old clunker which looked like it had recently been retired from delivering pizza. He made the mistake of leaning a little too hard on the front bumper when he pushed it to demonstrate the shocks. The bumper fell off, barely missing his cowboy boots. Ralph never lost a beat. He made a note to see the mechanic about “bodywork problems”, kicked the offending bumper under the car. The pile of sawdust beneath it was turning black, absorbing oil. Jack Scullion approached me with a beer in one hand and a smoke in the other. He had jet black hair, scars on his nose and around his eyes. He bore all the signs of a fighter feeling no pain. He stood spread legged in front of me and asked if I was in Murphy’s will. When I told him I didn’t think so, he seemed to relax. As much as a short, Glaswegian lawyer can relax. His shifty eyes wondered how I could benefit from Murphy’s death. He turned and stood by my side with a wide stance. He gestured alternately with the beer and the smoke while he surveyed the room. “Ach, it’s a right shower here, just noo, Jimmy” I nodded, but I didn’t really know what he meant. He didn’t notice, went on with his monologue, sometimes addressing the room, sometimes confiding to me. “Aye, they’re aw here noo. The vultures’re here. Look at em circlin, look at yersels, ach. See em? They’re after his money. The poor old boy isn’t even cauld yet. See em? They’re a right shower a bastards” No doubt, like most of his race, the Scottish lawyer was a little crazy and extremely violent. Rather than point out that he, too, was in attendance for strictly financial reasons, I managed to escape back to Margaret and Mary. I was getting desperate. Mary and Margaret had been absorbing the alcohol at a rapid rate. They had run out of tears. Their mutual hostility emerged with each drink. I addressed them with an eye on the coffin. “Well, ladies, it must be tense waiting for the will to be read. To see who gets what of Murphy’s. I understand that Mary here was just about to tie the knot with poor Murphy” Margaret frowned and produced many heretofore unseen lines in her face. “Hah” She blurted out with a laugh. “Tie the knot. He’s been engaged to her for twenty years” Mary reacted with bug eyed indignation. Her truthfulness about Murphy’s last moments was being questioned. “We were like man and wife. He didn’t spend time with his other family” she said before she found another glass of rye. Ralph had finished his pitch, but had no takers. He threw regretful glances at the bumper as he approached us, beer in hand. “Anyone got a few words to say?” he asked with a kindly smile. “Ha. Family’s family. It’s his blood in my veins” Margaret asserted. Jack Scullion had joined us. He had a fresh beer, stood spread legged with shoulders back. It was as though he was bracing himself on a heaving deck. “The will overrides everything” said Mary pugnaciously in Margaret’s direction. This hostility caught Jack’s attention, it was right up his alley. He looked around for an opponent, saw Ralph about to speak. I sidled toward the casket as Ralph began what he thought was sort of a eulogy for Murphy, but which he never finished. He never really got it started. Mary took offence at the look which Margaret gave her, hit the dead man’s sister with her purse. Jack saw his opportunity, gave Ralph a Glaswegian handshake which could be heard all over the showroom. There was evidence of Jack’s nutting ability the next day in the taverns; quite a few black eyes and bandaids sported by the mourners who clashed with him He made up for his lack of height by jumping straight at the other man’s face, applying the head, around the hairline, into whatever features were available. With Ralph sitting in a pool of the blood which was spouting from his nose, the women shrieking as they rolled around in front of him, I made it to the casket. Jack was taking on all comers. He seemed to be enjoying himself. I searched Murphy’s vest and trouser pockets with one hand, the other still holding my coffee cup. I was about to try his jacket when the lights went out. It wasn’t dark, but it turned everything in the showroom shadowy. The struggling figures in the brawl were being joined by others, the children shooed to the office. Maybe it was one of them who was responsible for the half light. I checked one side of Murphy’s jacket pockets and found nothing. The noise of fighting and breaking glass became louder. I tried the other pocket, felt cardboard. I pulled the lottery tickets out of Murphy’s pocket, squinted at them. They were the right ones. I was saying a prayer of thanks to my dead chum and the good Lord when I dropped the tickets. They slid down on the other side of Murphy. I panicked for a moment. Placing my cup between Murphy’s folded hands, I used one of my hands to shift his weight, the other to feel for the tickets. I grasped them just as a bottle crashed against the casket and a sliding body took my feet out from under me. Ralph had provided a fold out table from the lunch room upon which to place Murphy’s casket. As my weight shifted, the casket slid off the table. Murphy sat up with my coffee cup in his hands. Crawling toward the door, tickets in my hand, I glanced back. Murphy’s sudden rise from the prone to the sitting position, had caused a pause in the fighting. I heard various opinions of this phenomenon. “It’s a sign” The words “miracle” and “resurrection”were mentioned several times.. When I joined Finn, the next day, at the Carleton Tavern and paid him back, cheerfully, he gave me a curious look. He was totalling up the weekend’s action over a quart, asked me if I’d been to Murphy’s funeral after the donnybrook at his wake. I confirmed that I’d attended the burial. It was a sad and solemn affair for all involved including Murphy’s family and everyone’s legal representatives. We drank a memorial toast to Murphy that day before I bought everyone a round and placed a few bets.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
I first heard of Henry Miller, perhaps fittingly, when I lived with two other guys in East Vancouver. One of the guys had a friend who was a postman, the other guy was having an affair with the postman’s wife. There were a few awkward moments when he snuck her in for a night or an afternoon quickie, but, all in all, things went well and I saw a book which the postman had lent to his buddy, my housemate. It was a compilation of the letters between Henry and Lawrence Durrell. I became interested and then obsessed with Miller’s writing, read everything of his I could get my hands on. I still have a worn copy of Tropic of Cancer by my bedside along with Flann O’Brien’s, The Poor Mouth. For some reason which I don’t want to analyze, both books are places of refuge for me when I just want to relax and enjoy the language. At times like that I don’t think as much about the content of what I’m reading as much as how the words are strung together. Finding Henry’s writing was like the moment when Shakespeare made sense to me in high school: a light bulb shone. In all my travels after that I kept a sharp eye open when books by Henry were displayed. Krishnamurti, Durrell, Arthur Rimbaud, Anais Nin and others were introduced to me by Henry’s writing and their books were ones I watched for too. Of course, I was watching for cheap versions of their works. When my friend, Robin, arrived to visit me in Crete he brought a copy of The Colossus of Maroussi, written when Henry visited Lawrence Durrell and his wife in Corfu. Surviving in a tiny room in Paris on croque monsieurs, cheese, baguettes and red wine, I planned a novel using the Paris metro map as structure. Needless to say, the novel became as confusing and mixed up as my understanding of the Paris subway system and was abandoned. I made a pilgrimage to the street where Anais Nin lived when she and Henry were having their affair. Their conviction that analysis was necessary and their visits to Otto Rank, a student of Freud, revealed the notion that psychoses are the products of frustrated or blocked creativity. Frustrated writers can take comfort in the idea that writing is at least healthy if not profitable. By the time I was there, the bars mentioned in his books were too expensive for me to patronise but I lingered outside the Coupole and the Dome. I walked endlessly around Paris, imagined what it was like then, wondered why Henry was never mentioned in the list of writers who lived in the city in the 30's. There was irony in the thought of him existing from meal to meal as he worked on Tropic in the arts capital of the Western world, poor, reviled and rejected. I didn’t know then that he and Anais Nin wrote pornography for the money of their rich patrons but I knew there had been an overwhelming rejection of him in the States and that he was involved in the debate about pornography and obscenity. It looks like the descendants of those moral Americans who banned his books for so long have, seventy or eighty years later, taken over the government of the USA. He described his trip across the states in The Air Conditioned Nightmare. The title pretty well demonstrated Henry’s attitude toward the system. It gave me hope. Here was a man with great curiosity about the world and other people and sex who ignored all the warnings and temptations which were placed before him and followed a singular path of his own. It led him to another continent, through years of poverty and piles of rejection slips. But he kept going and kept laughing. “Always cheery and bright” was his motto and the most depressing situations could be changed for the better just by reading his books. I know that a generation who thinks the 60's is ancient history has a hard time understanding his relevance now, but then he was like a beacon. He personified the rebelliousness and questioning which was rumbling underground. I often wonder what he would have made of this internet, instant world. I like to think he’d revel in it. It would be so much easier to spread his subversive ideas and plead for sanity. A literary website reminded me of him when they put out a call for submissions on “money”. He had written Money and How It Got That Way years ago though I don’t know where I saw it. He would enjoy, as Kurt Vonnegutt Jr put it, “Poisoning them with a little humanity”. Henry believed that the best education it was possible to get was available to anyone with a library card at the same time as he relished the quote ,“When I hear the word Kultur, I pick up my pistol”. Henry wasn’t published until he was almost forty and that was always a prod for me when I started feeling sorry for myself. He’s been called racist and misogynist but, in my opinion, almost always by someone with an axe to grind. After all, Anais Nin’s lover must have been more than just a male chauvinist pig. The worst was online when a critic (critics are paid to criticize, we shouldn’t forget that) said he was boring. Of course, the critic, who seems to be trying to make a name for himself by attacking famous writers, used much of the language which Henry and others like him forced into literary acceptability. He couldn’t express himself without those words but he seemed to have no idea that the very words he used were allowed in the English writing world because of legal battles fought over Henry’s books. I don’t know what the penalty was for getting caught with a Tropic or a Rosy Crucifixion book in the 60's but that there was a penalty at all seems ridiculous. As ridiculous as excoriating Elvis, The Beatles and The Dixie Chicks. Sex was the same then. It hasn’t and hadn’t changed. He had the audacity to describe the act itself and men and women’s bodies without apology and, many times, with great humour. He didn’t gloss over the sweaty, intimate details which weren’t supposed to be mentioned in polite society. It’s not just that Henry wrote about sex like no one else. He described it in the first person often and didn’t avoid branching off into other personal thoughts which occurred to him while he was engaged. His style of using his own personal experiences for the creation of fiction and nonfiction became the roots of my travel writing. Henry seemed to be painfully honest even when he was making things up. I was working on the rigs in Alberta, living in Edmonton, when Henry died. I happened to be in town and not in the bush on that occasion and made my way to the nearest hotel. The bars in Alberta are huge and busy. Others at the table had no idea who Henry was and why I should be there to drink a farewell toast to him on the occasion of his death. I did the same at the same bar when John Lennon was shot. They didn’t know, any more than I did, that I would carry around his books and lean on his inspiration for many years. Here is Henry’s description of one of the many jobs he took to survive in France. “Here was I, supposedly to spread the gospel of Franco-American amity- the emissary of a corpse who, after he had plundered right and left, after he had caused untold suffering and misery, dreamed of establishing universal peace. Ffui! What did they expect me to talk about, I wonder? About LEAVES OF GRASS, about the tariff walls, about the Declaration of Independence, about the latest gang war? What? Just what, I’d like to know. Well, I’ll tell you-I never mentioned these things. I started right off the bat with a lesson on the physiology of love. How the elephants make love-that was it! It caught like wildfire. After the first day there were no more empty benches. After that first lesson in English they were standing at the door waiting for me. We got along swell together. They asked all sorts of questions, as though they had never learned a damned thing. I let them fire away. I taught them to ask more ticklish questions. Ask anything!- that was my motto. I’m here as a plenipotentiary from the realm of free spirits. I’m here to create a fever and a ferment. ‘In some ways’ says an eminent astronomer, ‘the universe appears to be passing away like a tale that is told, dissolving into nothingness like a vision’. That seems to be the general feeling underlying the empty breadbasket of learning. Myself, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe a fucking thing these bastards try to shove down our throats.” Tropic of Cancer
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Back when Syd Barrett led Pink Floyd , the band recorded its first album at Abbey Road Studio at the same time as The Beatles recorded Sergeant Pepper’s there and The Pretty Things were recording S F Sorrow. They called it, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Flash forward to this century and a habit I picked up in Amsterdam and can’t seem to shake. The habit is listening to the World Service on the radio all night. It’s the CBC All Night Radio here, the BBC World Service there (I think). A lot of countries contribute reports to the World Service. I don’t really understand how it works but there’s nothing quite like laying snug in your bed, free to fall asleep or listen to Holland, Sweden, Korea or Poland talk about their news. For instance, the other night there was a report from somewhere near Alice Springs, Australia about a race they held between honey bees and homing pigeons. The bees won. Of course, it you’re tired and working and need to get up early in the morning, it’s unwise to indulge this habit. You lose too much sleep. At the moment, though, I am indulging this habit and the other night I must have dozed off and awoke to a female voice with an English accent declaring that the seventh chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows proved his hidden but genuine pantheism. Kenneth Grahame was born in Scotland and spent all of his working life in a bank in London. According to Wikipedia he died in 1932 and The Wind in the Willows was published in 1908. As I rolled around in the dark, it occurred to me that Van Morrison had included a song on The Healing Game cd called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The chorus is “The wind in the willows and the piper at the gates of dawn”. And Fred Armstrong out in Newfoundland actually talked on CBC radio about The Wind in the Willows. It was his opinion that the book was not a children’s book at all, that it was really written for adults. There was no script for the show but he said he went over the top a little when he called it, “Shakespeare with fur”. It’s probably the combination of poetry and music in Van Morrison’s song that appeals to me so much. When I actually read chapter seven which is called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn in Grahame’s book, I discovered poetic language there too. In fact, Van used several phrases verbatim from the book or almost verbatim. When Grahame uses “the daybreak not so very far off”, Morrison uses “the daybreak not so very far away” and when Grahame writes “the light grew steadily stronger”, Morrison sings “grew steadily strong”. And Fred, an old friend and veteran reporter (30 years) just published his first fictional novel, Happiness of Fish (Jesperson Publishing., 2007) in St John’s. He’s a creative soul, one who never gives up on his dreams. If he was interested in the book, there must be something to it. So I asked him and here’s what he said, “Wind in the Willows is a deep little book about a rather Taoist bunch of beasties sitting around writing poems and banqueting between adventures....” “Opinion seems to be split on the Pan chapter of WIW. People love it or hate it.... I think WIW is a comfortably sentimental look at nature as deity. I think anyone who has been scared at sea or lost in the woods and come home can handle the balance between a nature that creates us and takes us away or maybe doesn’t. There’s also something appealing about a deity that performs a Men in Black mind wipe after you trip over him. Ratty and Mole don’t remember him when it’s all over. They take the little otter off to breakfast rather than sitting down and writing the Book of Revelation.” The words in Van’s writing which are taken straight out of chapter seven are:” heavenly music” and “song-dream” though one doesn’t have a dash connecting them and the other does. Graham writes “when the vision had vanished” and Morrison writes “vision vanished” a difference in tense only. Here is the description of Pan in Wikipedia: ‘Pan: in Greek religion and mythology, is the god of shepherds and flocks, of mountain wilds, hunting and rustic music. His name originates from the word paein, meaning to pasture. He has the hindquarters, legs, and horns of a goat, in the same manner as a faun or satyr. He is recognized as the god of fields, groves, and wooded glens; because of this, Pan is connected to fertility and the season of Spring. The wikipedia article goes on to say that “accounts of Pan’s geneology are so varied that it must lie buried deep in mythic time.” and that “panic” is derived from his name. The story recounted in Chapter seven of Wind in the Willows is a simple one: Mole and Ratty search for the lost Portly, son of Otter, and find him safe and saved by Pan after they are led there in their rowboat by his magical piping. Van Morrison uses words like “awe”, “wonder”, enchanted” and “spellbound” to describe the characters’ state as they follow Pan’s music to find little Portly. Grahame emphasizes Pan’s insistence that the wild creatures’ experience with him will be forgotten when it’s over. Like hypnotism, “You will awake and remember nothing” Wikipedia includes all kinds of interesting facts like, “Pan is famous for his sexual powers and is often depicted with an erect phallus.” and “Pan’s greatest conquest was that of the moon goddess, Selene.” along with references to the symbolism of Satan, Romanticism and Neopaganism and “A modern account of several purported meetings with Pan is given by R. Ogilvie Crombie in the books, The Findhorn Garden (Harper and Rowe, 1975) and The Magic of Findhorn (Harper and Rowe, 1975).” Pan is not named in the book, just described, but in the song Morrison calls him “the great god, Pan” when he echoes Grahame’s insistence that the animals were not afraid of him despite his reputation. It is the only song on The Healing Game (1997) which has no percussion in it. Just Van’s vocals as he plays acoustic guitar with a dobro (which I can’t hear probably because of the quality of my sound system), and a piano with Brian Kennedy’s vocal backings and Paddy Maloney on Uilleann pipes and whistle. The Uilleann Pipes, a type of Irish bagpipe, aren’t apparently related to the Pan Pipes but their effect in the song is an ethereal, delicate one. When you see the innocent willow leaves on the cover and the cartoon characters with which it’s illustrated, the same impression is left by the book as when you see Van Morrison’s black and white picture on the cover of the cd with a black fedora and shades, a black over coat and white shirt buttoned up to the neck. Neither give any hint of Pan’s magic. They bring to mind an old Willie Dixon song, You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover.