21 October 2017

Farewell Gord Downie; commiserations Canada

Michael Barclay invited us to share his sensitive obituary. Gordon Downie (1964-2017) was born near Kingston Ont, to Lorna & Edgar. He was the 4th of 5 children, the one who played goalie for Amherst­view’s successful hockey team.

Downie moved to Kingston to attend Kingston Collegiate Vocat­ional Institute. Coming from a rural area, his out­sider status became part of his public identity: the poet in the bar band; the rock star slumming it with indie kids while cosying up to intel­ligent­sia; the artist with a commer­cially successful cushion who thrived on chall­enging himself with new collab­orators and varied disciplines like dance, painting and act­ing. The rest of the Tragically Hip were scions of the King­ston elite. Downie could at least boast that he was connected to hockey royalty.

He joined a punk band called The Slinks; their friendly rivals at the school were a Grade 13 group The Rodents, featuring bassist Gord Sinclair and guitarist Robbie Baker. A young drummer, Johnny Fay, watched with interest. Four of those five young men played their first gig as the Tragically Hip in Nov 1984, in a small white room at the King­ston Artists Association. Paul Langlois, son of the school's sports coach who Downie befriended, joined a year later; by that time, Downie was studying film at Queen’s and drinking.

In the band’s first three years, they played ’60s cover songs by the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding, Mar­vin Gaye and the Monkees. Downie’s on-stage improvisations were a main part of the band’s appeal, though he was not yet a lyricist. As original material slowly seeped its way into the set, it was Gord Sinclair who wrote most of the lyr­ics. It wasn’t until the 1991 release of the band’s second album, Road Apples, that Downie seized the lyrical reins entirely.

The Tragically Hip released their first EP in Dec 1987; a year later they headed to Memphis to record Up to Here. It became one of two Hip albums to eventually sell more than a million copies in Canada. They tapped into rock-n-roll’s primal energy in ways that had been largely forgotten by the late ’80s: they were a dressed-down, no-frills road­house bar band whose videos were rejected by MTV, a band whose sound was far removed from the era’s pop stars, stadium rock, ageing Boomers, newer bluesy bands. And they were too traditional and aspirational to be Alter­n­ative.

It was their live performances, where Downie’s unusual charisma electrified everyone who saw them. No other act back then was embraced with the fervour that Hip fans displayed toward Downie as a performer, but it was his lyrics that inflamed his fans. In a genre prone to cliché, outright nonsense and occasional misogyny, Gord Downie wrote memorable lyrics.

Canadians watched him command 40,000 people at outdoor appearances during the 1990s, singing songs that were summer soundtracks for an entire generation. Video clips didn’t do justice to the energy in the room generated.

Downie’s specifically Canadian references were all but alien on radio playlists. He prized the anomaly - he’d arrive on stage and make strange Canadian references! But there were likely to be as many American refer­ences as Canadian ones in Tragically Hip songs. So it’s telling that the album on which he made the most Canadian references was also their most commercially successful: Fully Completely 1992.

Gord Downie

His first solo, Coke Machine Glow 2001, had songs his Hip bandmates had rejected and works culled from an accom­panying book of poetry. And it set sales records in a corner of the pub­lishing industry. The album was experimental and far removed from the rock radio world the Hip inhabited: droning organs, atonal guitar screeches and accordions compet­ed for sonic space with Gord’s vocals atop opiated folk-country songs. The press and music industry were baffled; among non-Hip fans, it remained a beloved and influential record.

Solo albums were a pressure-release valve for Downie in the early 2000s, as the Hip became elder statesmen in danger of being taken for granted. Record sales and radio play declined somewhat. Later he pushed the band to record two albums with Bob Rock and he helped broaden their sonic palette. His later solo records, including a rollicking, punkish 2014 album rec­orded with the Sadies, were remarkably conventional comp­ared to Coke Machine Glow. Downie loved to make rock records!

And Downie directed his attention to envir­onmental issues, specifically those endorsed by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a Canadian water charity. Downie’s political aware­ness had been tweaked in 1993, when the Hip invited Australia’s Mid­night Oil on a sum­mer Canadian tour; that band’s singer, Peter Garrett, was an outspoken activist who later served as an Aus­tralian minister. Garrett and his bandmates became invest­ed in the fight against clear-cutting in BC, and convinced the Hip to join them. Years later, when he decided to be more vocal, Downie relied on research and science rather than on his celebrity.

By 2016, when he released his Secret Path project to address the legacy of residential schools, he knew his celeb­rity was now his best asset: he had the country’s att­ention. The reluctant nat­ional­ist used it to focus specifically on an issue he felt was a glaring stain in Canada’s hist­ory. He quickly transformed the old tale of a 12-year-old boy who froze to death running away from residential school in 1966 into a current concern. This tragic symbol launched a Canadian conversation about compassion.

Though he relished his role on stage, Downie’s app­r­oach to cel­ebrity was always tenuous. He rarely granted int­er­views, and generally eschewed red-carpet events. The entire band val­ued their privacy, and Downie even more so: perhaps because of the adulation directed his way, but also because of the way he was raised. It was, in a way, a very Canadian approach to celebrity.

In 2015 the Huff­ington Post ran a rare piece of celeb­rity news about Downie, who’d steadfastly shielded his four children and wife from the public eye. That year the couple had separated, prompt­ing the sale of his Toronto home. And his beloved fath­er, Edgar, was ail­ing; Gord spent a lot of time with him in Kingston while rec­ording the Hip’s Man Machine Poem at a nearby studio. Ed­gar died in Nov 2015.

The Tragically Hip, in London

3 days after dad's funeral, Gord had a seizure. The hosp­ital diagnosed a primary glioblast­oma, an aggressive brain cancer. Months of surgeries and therapies followed. The band broke the news in May 2016, while simultaneously announcing a tour to promote the new album.

It would be the last. Lead singer Gord Downie performed with band members Paul Langlois, Gord Sin­clair, Johnny Fay and Rob Baker at the Memorial Centre to launch the band’s latest Man Machine Poem tour. Once the show hit the road, there was a public outpouring that few could have pred­icted: a year of Downie transforming from an aging rock star to tragic hero.

Here was a man wrestling with notions of mortality in his work for years. He was the poet who once asked “When are you thinking of disappearing? When are you falling off the map?” This was a man invit­ing us to his own wake. Everyone was prepared for the funeral at any moment.

He made it. The final Tragically Hip show at the K-Rock Centre in Kingston in Aug was broadcast live on the CBC to 11.7 million viewers, with 20,000 people from across the continent assemb­led in Springer Market Square to celebrate. Then three more live shows, in Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.

In his last public appearance, Downie appeared at a WE Day event as part of Canada150 in Ottawa, once again calling on Canadian youth to reckon with the legacy of resid­ential schools. A children’s choir sang The Stranger, and the emotion and pride on Gord’s face was palpable.

Downie’s lyrics imbued Canada’s mus­ic scene with mystery and magic and presented them, poetically, to a wide mainstream aud­ience. Do the work. Create the spark. When he finished, Gord Downie left an eternal flame. He passed away in Oct 2017.

Michael Barclay's The Never-Ending Present: Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip will be released Ap 2018.

17 October 2017

Bevin Boys - WW2 conscription down the coal mines

Coal was essential for military production during WW2; somehow Britain had to match the quotas needed to keep fact­ories churn­ing out the munitions required at the front. And as Britain was unable to import coal in wartime, the production of coal from local mines had to be increased. But how? 36,000 miners were already cons­crip­t­ed for army duty and had left their collieries.

Ernest Bevin, wartime Minister of Labour and National Service and a former Trade Unionist, believed the short­age could be remedied by using conscripted men to fill the vacancies in the mines, keeping production at the rates requir­ed. In Dec 1943 he announced a scheme in Parliament.

A ballot would take place to put a fixed perc­ent­age of cons­cript­ed men into the underground collieries rather than into the armed services. “We need 720,000 men continuously employed in this industry. This is where you boys come in. Our fighting men will not be able to achieve their purpose unless we get an adequate supply of coal.” Any refusal to comply with the Direction Order would result in a heavy fine and/or imprisonment under the Emergency Powers Act in force back then.

Bevin Boys' first day down the mine
Photo credit: Express

Bevin boys training with a pit pony
Photo credit: Bevin Boys Photo Grallery

Every month, 10 numbers were placed in a hat; 2 numbers were drawn and those whose National Service registration number ended with those numbers were directed to the mining industry. Along these ballotees were the optants, men who had volunt­eered for service in the coal mines, rather than the armed serv­ices. From 1943-8, 48,000 young men between the ages of 18-25 were conscripted for Nat­ional Service Employment in British coal mines.

After medical examinations, travel warrants & instructions, the men had to report to one of the thirteen Government Training Centre Collieries in England, Wales and Scotland. Accommodation was provided in either a purpose-built Miners Hostel similar to an army camp, or billeted out to a private home at £1.25/week from a weekly wage of £3.50.

Each new miner was taught mining in a 6 weeks training course: classroom lectures, surface-and-underground training and physical fitness. Only a minority of Bevin Boys were actually employed cutting coal on the coal face, and others worked as colliers' assistants, filling tubs or drams. The maj­ority worked on maintaining haulage roads, or con­trolling underground con­veyor belts. The few who had previous electrical or engineering experience were given similar work in the collieries.

This alternative to army service caused much dismay; many of the Bevin Boys wanted to join the fighting for­c­es, or felt that as coal miners they would not be valued.

The Bevin Boys came from a range of backgrounds and skill sets. A few were true conscientious objectors who were being consc­rip­ted for essential but non-military work. Some were sons of privilege, and many were lads from big cities who had never even seen a coal mine. Whatever their background, by Dec 1943 one in ten conscripts found themselves in the mines instead of at the front.

6 weeks of training for each intake of conscripts
in classrooms, via vigorous physical training and in the underground mine
Photo credit: PressReader

A large proportion of the 48,000 Bevin Boys sent to Britain's coll­ieries disliked their time spent there. This was partially because they had been hoping to join the army, as noted. Plus many suffered vicious taunts from by-standers; coal miners wore no distinctive uniform so moral judgements were often made about the lads “shirking” from war service. Even the police would stop and question men of military age, if they suspected the men had avoided conscrip­t­ion.

Finally a large number of reserved occupation miners also dis­liked the Bevin Boys. They saw the lads as a threat to their live­li­hoods and also as dangerous liabilities, given that most did not come from mining backgrounds. Worse, the local mining fam­ilies had already seen their own sons conscripted into the armed services, only to be replaced by very young, reluctant outsiders.

Unlike the ordinary miners, who wore their own clothes, Bevin Boys were issued with overalls, safety helmet and working boots. But it was unfortunate that Bevin Boys a] were not given an identifiable war service uniform and b] were not released from their coal mines until several years after the war ended. This was long after their counter­parts in the armed forces had been demobbed.

The mine-work was done in appalling conditions with no toilet facilities, working in areas that were hot, cold, wet, dusty or dirty. The constant noise of machinery was deafening. And there was always the fear that there could be an explosion resulting in fire or rock fall. [I am claustrophobic. That would have been my worst fear].

The ballots were suspended in May 1945, with the last of the 50,000 conscripts working in the coal mines. The Bevin Boys had all been demobbed in 1948. A small number stayed in mining after the war, but most couldn't wait to leave.

Unlike other conscripts, they had no right to go back to their previous occupations, they received no service medals, demob suit or even a letter of thanks. And because the official records were destroyed in the 1950s, former Bevin Boy ballotees could not even prove their service, unless they have kept their personal documents.

Bevin Boys in Durham
They were just teenagers, away from home for the first time
photo credit: WW2inColor

Many men who spent their war on the so-called underground front went unrecognised for almost half a century. Perhaps they were still embarrassed about not serving on the front. In any case, some men did eventually form the Bevin Boys Association in 1989 in Dorchester Dorset. The first official Bevin Boys reunion was held at the former Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum in 1989.

It took until 1995 for the British government to form­ally re­cog­nise the contribution of these men, by then old age pens­ion­ers. The Queen made a speech and unveiled the Home Front Mem­orial in Coventry. And in 2007, the Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that a special honour was to be presented to all conscripts who served in the mines. This was on the 60th anniversary of the last Bevin Boy being demobbed. Any living Bevin Boys are now officially allowed to take part in the Remembrance Day service at Whitehall.

Many thanks to The Forgotten Conscripts by Warwick H Taylor  and the BBC’s The Coal Industry in Wartime by Dr Martin Johnes.


Apologies. If my Comment Section doesn't work, email your comment to  helenw@bigpond.net.au and I will post it under your nick.

14 October 2017

Smitten by the artist Catherine da Costa

Dr Henry Lew wrote Smitten by Cath­er­ine, the story of Catherine Rachel Mendes da Costa (1678-1756). Lew was stroll­ing through an auction house looking at furniture, and noticed a sp­ec­ial C18th watercolour copy of a Rubens oil painting, att­rib­uted to Catherine da Costa. Since I am particularly interested in the era when Jews were permitted to return to England in mid C17th, my question became: who was this little known artist?

Lew started the story back in Spain and Portugal, from where the Jews were expelled in the 1490s.  The author focused on the strength of Manasseh Ben Israel whose family had fled to Amsterdam from Madeira in Por­t­ugal. In his 1652 book, The Hope of Israel, Manasseh noted that countries tol­er­ant of Jews were also those that flourish­ed economically. Man­asseh had tried to find a solution to counteract the Chris­tian concept of the oppressed homeless Jew; he reminded Whitehall that Jews always displayed civic loyal­ty. Manasseh was a man of grand vision, and had his portrait done by Rembrandt in 1636. But the man was a realist - he  had to accept less favour­able terms for Jews, if they were to be tolerated in England eg synagogues would only be permitted inside private homes.

Catherine’s father, Fernando Mendes (born 1647), came from the town of Trancoso in Portugal, which had a Jewish community surviving as crypto-Jews. Under difficult circumst­anc­es, Fer­nando eventually moved from Portugal in c1660, first to France and then to England. His timing was excellent; Ol­iv­er Crom­well had allowed Jews to be readmitted as recently as 1656.
Henry Lew's book cover
The Victorious Hero... Concludes Peace, 1723
by Catherine da Costa

Fernando Mendes was sent to study Medicine at Montpellier University in 1666, graduating with his Doctorate in 1668. In 1669 he returned to London and went into business with his very wealthy first cousin, Alvaro Rodrigues da Costa. Alvaro was a man who was hugely successful trading inside the East India Company. So clearly Dr Mendes never had to rely on Medicine as his sole source of income. The quid pro quo for a successful life was that neither men could be Jewish - Fernando was a Catholic and Alvaro became a Protestant.

Catherine de Braganza came from a senior noble house in Portugal, and lived there until she married King Charles II of England in 1662. An article of the marriage treaty was that Queen Catherine was allowed freely to practise her faith; her chapels in St James’ Palace and Somerset House were the only two places in London where Catholics could legally worship. Once again timing was critical. In 1678 Dr Fernando Mendes was app­oint­ed physician to King Charles II and Queen Catherine de Braganza. Mendes was paid a salary, and was provided with his own apartment in Somerset House, the Queen’s royal palace in London.

Dr Mendes married Isabel Rodriques Marques, daughter of a devout Jewish merchant. Their first baby was born in Somerset House in late 1689. Queen Catherine, who could not have any babies herself, was del­ight­ed with the little girl, had her baptised in the palace and asked that she be called Catherine. Even after King Char­les’ death in 1685, Dr Mendes remained in the Dowager Queen’s service. And Catherine Mendes remained the god-daughter of Queen Catherine.

I am sorry we learn so little about Catherine’s values, hopes and goals in the book. We DO know that she became a pupil of the famous min­iat­urist Bernard Lens III (1682-1740), a painter at the courts of kings George I and George II. In 1707 Lens became the first British artist to replace vellum, the most common material for miniatures, with ivory. (As Catherine did later). Catherine’s copy of Lens’ painting, The Vict­orious Hero Takes Occasion to Conclude Peace, must have been very influential on the young woman.

In 1698 Catherine married her cousin Anthony Moses da Costa, a young merchant, and had three children. Like his father, Anthony became a leading figure in East India trade, and in banking. He was ad­mired by Voltaire, rejected by the Russian Company because of being Jewish and was appointed commissioner for the new American colony of Georgia.
Top: Bernard Lens, Portrait of a Lady called Mary Queen of Scots (1720)
Middle: Catherine da Costa, Self Portrait (1720)
Bottom: Catherine da Costa, her son Abraham (born 1704)

Anthony and Catherine lived in two lovely homes in London. She was exposed to the impressive operas and oratorios of contemporary George Frederick Handel. And she read the Enlightenment philosophers Locke and Hume. Yet Jewish life in England was ambivalent. Catherine knew that Jews often hid their Jewish identity, that inter-marriage and conversion were common, allowing access to important nat­ion­al organisations. Moreover Catherine witnessed impoverished Sephardi Jews, still fleeing persecution. These Jews could become the subject of anti-Semitic stereotypes in England.

Why would a Jewish artist paint a Madonna and Child? Henry Lew re­iterated that Portuguese Marranos had been living as Christ­ians since the 1490s. And remember that Catherine’s father Fernando and her father-in-law Alvaro were both committed Christ­ians. Perhaps Catherine saw Sofonisba Anguis­s­ola’s Madonna and Child (1556, p65) and adored it.

Catherine’s oeuvre was worth examining. Her Self-Portrait was my favourite (1720, p64); the well-dressed artist was busy working at her easel. The Portrait of her Father Dr Fernando Mendes showed a well dressed gentleman in a wig, in front of his impressive library (1721, p46). And her portraits of her son Abraham da Costa (1714, p66) and her Double Portrait of Two Children were sensitive (not dated, p68). Only the portrait of London mer­chant Francis Jacob Salvador (1720, p67) was, in my opinion, not very sensitive.

Dr Lew, an opthamologist for 40 years, authored 6 other books. For Smitten by Catherine, he has published a limited edition of 500 copies in hardback. This beautiful book was complete with plates of Cath­er­ine’s art, works by her teacher Bern­ard Lens III, and the original painting by Rubens that Cath­erine cop­ied. Readers might like to locate an old catalogue of the exhib­it­ion Jewish Artists in England 1656-1956, held at the White­chapel Art Gallery, Nov-Dec 1956.


Apologies. If my Comment Section doesn't work, email your comment to  helenw@bigpond.net.au and I will post it under your nick.